On an idyllic June day, Williams College senior Bert Leatherman might have been forgiven for basking in his own accomplishments as he received his parchment diploma. But instead, the West Virginian was reflecting on the influence of his high school biology teacher, Sharon Erickson Harman of Moorefield (W.V.) High School.
"Dr. Harman was a profound influence on me during high school at a time when I had a hard time fitting in. She was a great teacher and friend to me," says Mr. Leatherman, co-president of the college's student body.
Praise for supportive family, friends, and college professors is a staple of commencement ceremonies. But here the gratitude reaches back to people who are often unrecognized in helping students make it to the college gates: secondary-school teachers.
Rather than simply focusing on its own achievements in preparing the graduating class, Williams brings teachers to campus to celebrate the importance of high-quality education at every level, and the inspirational bonds that can form between high school students and teachers.
Each year, students nominate candidates, and four are honored with Williams's Olmsted award.
Winners are awarded a cash prize ($1,500 individually and $750 for the teacher's school), no small thing for members of a group well acquainted with the terms "underappreciated" and "underpaid."
But perhaps more significant is teachers having the satisfaction of knowing their influence has lasted well beyond high school. "Williams is recognizing that it takes a lot of training to come here," Leatherman continues, "and that support comes especially from our teachers."
Math and dinosaurs
Sophia Kuo practically swoons when recalling math class with Shawn Mintek, a teacher at Franklin High School in Seattle, and one of this year's prizewinners.
"Of all the engaging and dynamic individuals who chose to teach in my large, urban, public high school, Shawn Mintek is one of the most inspirational," Ms. Kuo wrote in her letter nominating Mr. Mintek. He gave up his free period to teach calculus twice a day, organized a lunchtime peer-tutoring program, and also managed to teach classes on subjects ranging from dinosaurs to philosophy.
"But prizes don't make up for the fact that high school teachers don't work under the most ideal of conditions," adds Kuo, a biology and art major who hopes to start a nonprofit organization. "They work so much and get paid so little."
For Mintek, a former shipyard laborer who holds a PhD in philosophy, just knowing that a student had singled him out was honor enough. "This feels very different from other teaching prizes where you submit an application. [The Olmsted] seems like a genuine assessment of a teaching career because it's recognition from a student."
The teaching award is formally known as the George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 National Prizes for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching. Established in 1983, it is funded by an endowment from the estate of alumnus George Olmsted Jr., and his wife, Frances.
Although neither of the Olmsteds were teachers, they held the profession in high regard.
David Richardson, a chemistry professor at Williams for 14 years and chair of the selection committee for the past five, says the mission of the Olmsted prize is to "recognize an underrecognized group of people who are doing important work. High school teachers are largely responsible for the great students we get to work with, and it's only fitting for them to be acknowledged at graduation."
The subjects the honorees have taught range from English and history to industrial arts, Professor Richardson says.
Nancy McIntire, assistant to the president of the college and administrator for the prize, says the recipients of the award reflect the diversity of the student body. "The teachers come from all over the country, from small rural schools, large, sophisticated ones, both public and private." One year, a teacher from Taiwan was flown to Williamstown.
Each fall, the graduating class is invited to submit nominations that describe influential secondary school teachers.
Williams senior Jonathan Plowman, who wants to pursue writing, recalls that he skipped a day of classes in order to compose his nomination by the deadline. He described English teacher Tom Keelan, himself a 1980 graduate of Williams College, as "driven always to reach out and pull more students into pursuits that would challenge and thrill them."
At The Culver Academies in Culver, Ind., and the Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho, Mr. Keelan taught literature, creative writing, and drama; led trips to Shakespeare festivals; coached swimming, cross-country, and soccer; organized a chess club; and served as "confidant and friend" to students.
"It's ridiculous for a prize [like the Olmsted] to exist and for Tom not to get it," Mr. Plowman says.
A committee of three juniors and three faculty members typically receives 40 to 80 nominations. They narrow it down and then seek information from and about the remaining teachers.
A second career
Among this year's winners, Peter Armstrong is the newest to the teaching profession. He taught European and American history at Iolani High School in Honolulu after a 30-year career in the United States Marine Corps.
He was nominated by Anne Lee, who plans to study law at the University of Hawaii. "He played a significant role in my life because his demand for excellence also changed the way I saw myself.... As a self-conscious, hearing-impaired student, I had a tendency to sit through class unnoticed," she wrote.
"[Armstrong] is one of those rare teachers who truly believes that his job is to train students who will excel not only in [history], but who will also do great things in the future."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society