Olmsted Awards

2017 Olmsted Prize winners will be announced in late March 2017

2016 Olmsted Prize recipients

Williams College awarded the annual George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching to four outstanding high school teachers on Saturday, June 4, 2016 at its annual Ivy Exercises.

The recipients are Jeffrey Gilden, an English teacher at Great Neck North High School in Great Neck, N.Y.; Celeste R. Mahabir, a history teacher at Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills, Mich.; Tracy R. Motley, a math teacher at Delaware County Christian School in Newtown Square, Pa.; and Mary I. Rascón-Corral, a world languages teacher at Sanger High School in Sanger, Calif.

Each year, Williams seniors nominate high school teachers who played influential roles in their lives and learning. A committee of faculty, staff, and students chooses winners from among the nominees. Recipients of the award receive $3,000, and an additional $5,000 is given to each recipient’s school. The Olmsted Prize was established in 1976 with an endowment from the estates of George Olmsted Jr. and his wife, Frances.

Olmsted Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching Recipients

Jeffrey Gilden, Great Neck North High School, Great Neck, N.Y.

Alex Paseltiner’16 credits Gilden with his decision to major in English at Williams. “Mr. Gilden’s class represented the first time I received genuine feedback on my work…his expectations for us were astronomical; the level of effort he asked us to put into something as once simple as reading was incredible for a high school course. But, by believing in us and encouraging us to think critically, in unfamiliar ways, about monumental texts, he was always able to bring our work up to the level of his standards.”

Since 1995, Gilden has taught courses in English at Great Neck, including Advanced Placement courses and creative writing. He has also served as an advisor to the senior class, the school newspaper, the yearbook committee, and the choir. Gilden is best known, Paseltiner says, as one of the leaders of STAGES, an alternative curriculum offered to seniors that culminates in the conception, writing, and performance of a full-length musical.

Over his 21 years at Great Neck, Gilden has revamped the curriculum of the English department and redesigned many of its courses. “Gilden is a magical teacher who combines a profound understanding and knowledge of art, literature, theater, and music with a profound understanding of young people in order to inspire teaching and learning,” says Bernard Kaplan, principal at Great Neck.

“I do know that I’ve always felt confident in my awareness of the ‘whole’ teenager, not just the student part—that the classroom isn’t only about literature lessons or grammar or even about intellectual pursuits and growth,” says Gilden. “My philosophy, to the degree that it can be articulated, is that being aware of the multiple ways in which students respond to their teachers is more important than anything.”

Celeste Mahabir, Detroit Country Day School, Beverly Hills, Mich.

When Christopher LeFlore ’16 entered Detroit Country Day School (DCDS), he felt disconnected from the school, except in his history class with Mahabir. Throughout his time at the school, Mahabir would come to be a close advisor and friend. “She saw me when I was a struggling student, believed in me and my potential, and guided me to fruition,” LeFlore says.

Mahabir taught at DCDS from 1996 to 2006, and again from 2007 to the present. She teaches a wide range of history courses, serves on the curriculum leadership council, the Upper School admissions committee, and as a disciplinary review board advisor. She also coaches the women’s junior varsity soccer team. In 2006–2007, Mahabir was the program director at the Yes for Prep program, designed to propel academically talented low-income youth from Detroit into the area’s top high schools.

Tim Bearden, chief academic officer at DCDS, says Mahabir is “one of, if not the best teacher at Country Day in creating structures and environments by which students think and create beyond surface understanding and achieve very sophisticated levels of application. Her impact on her students is long-lasting in that she cultivates their development as thinkers and problem-solvers, not just repositories of content.”

Says Mahabir: “I know my students have doors open to them that so many children in the world do not. I was taught that wasting one’s gifts is wrong, and so I owe it to my students to make sure they are exposed to other viewpoints. I hope to foster within my students a more thoughtful understanding of the world that they may one day lead. Who I am is reflected every day in my teaching and coaching.”

Tracy R. Motley, Delaware County Christian School, Newtown Square, Pa.

Daquan Daly ’16 fondly recalls how Motley (or T. Tracy, as he calls her) pushed him to do his best, not just as a student, but also as an athlete, leader, and community member. “The stewardship, selflessness, and leadership qualities that I now possess were cultivated and nourished by T. Tracy. Being around someone who willfully gave themselves to educating her students—not solely as students but as ‘people’ and ‘stewards’—made and continues to make me strive to be the best version of myself.”

Daly met Motley at Westtown School, where she taught math from 2006 to 2015. During her time at Westtown, Motley served as the math department chair, advised the math club and FIRST Robotics team, and was a member on committees including the Black History Month and Martin Luther King Day committees. In 2015, Motley began teaching at Delaware County Christian School. Both schools are preparatory schools with a diverse student body.

Motley says she is humbled by how many students keep in touch with her. “Any number of students see her as the reason they had such success in math and other areas of the program,” says Margaret Haviland, assistant head for faculty and program at Westtown. “Whether they were first-generation college kids or legacy Ivy League kids, she worked with and inspired them all.”

When she was young, Motley knew she wanted to teach. But first, she studied engineering and worked for Merck & Company Pharmaceuticals. This position allowed her the opportunity to be involved with youth mentoring programs. She says she was determined to become a high school math teacher, and she did. “My teaching philosophy is simple,” she says. “Raise the bar, help students clear it, and then raise it again and watch them soar.”

Mary Rascón-Corral, Sanger High School, Sanger, Calif.

Although his parents are Mexican immigrants, Gerardo Pelayo García ’16 was not fluent in Spanish until he found himself in Rascón’s Advanced Placement Spanish class. Rascón taught formal Spanish, but encouraged her students to embrace their dialects. García said that Rascón taught students to value their culture and respect it by being fluent.

Sanger High is committed to classroom equity, a value that assistant principal Jon Tillotson says is apparent in Rascón’s classroom. “She has an impeccable influence to guide students toward a bright future where everyone has a voice and everyone has the opportunity to create and manage his or her destiny,” he remarks.

When she began teaching 19 years ago, Rascón believed that curriculum was key. Over the years, she has come to believe that making an impact is more important. “Never did I see on the teacher job description coach, counselor, nurse, confidant when I signed the contract. Yet I have become this and more,” she says. Rascón grew up in a difficult family situation, where education was never emphasized. “Why could I not have received advice and support when I needed it the most—in middle and high school? Would my life have been different if someone noticed and believed in me?” In her teaching, she says she strives to be the person who notices and reaches out.

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2015