Olmsted Prize winners for excellence in high school teaching announced

Williams College has announced the recipients of its annual George Olmsted, Jr. Class of 1924 National Prizes for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching. The Olmsted Prize consists of $1,500 to each of the recipients and $750 to each of their schools.

The award, established in 1983, is funded by an endowment from the estate of George Olmsted, Jr., a 1924 graduate of Williams College who died in 1976, and gifts from his wife, Frances, who died in 1993. Olmsted, a strong, lifelong proponent of superior teaching, was the president and chairman of the board of the S.D. Waren (Paper) Company. Members of Williams College’s graduating class nominate high school teachers who have strongly influenced their intellectual pursuits and personal growth.

A committee of faculty, staff and students selects the four winners. The chair of this year’s committee is David Richardson, professor of chemistry.

This year’s winners are Peter F. C. Armstrong of the Iolani School in Honolulu, Hawaii.; Sharon Erickson Harman of Moorefield High School in Moorefield, W. Va.; Thomas P. Keelan ’80 of The Culver Academies in Culver, Ind.; and Shawn J. Mintek of Franklin High School, Seattle, Wash.

Peter F.C. Armstrong

Iolani School, Honolulu, Hawaii.

“He was a charismatic teacher who spiced his lessons with a dry and intelligent wit,” wrote Williams senior Anne Lee from Honolulu, in nominating Peter F. C. Armstrong.

“He is one of those rare teachers who truly believes that his job is to train students who will excel not only in Advanced Placement United States and modern European history, but who will also do great things in the future. We respected him even more when we realized that his high standards were not just a personal obsession, but a sincere wish to train all of us to be sharp thinkers.”

Lee says of Armstrong, “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 classes unnoticed.” She says she was challenged to excel in class, and was called on and intellectually engaged despite her difficulty in hearing.

Val Iwashita, Iolani School headmaster, writes, “Although the impact Mr. Armstrong makes in the academic realm is great, it is equaled by his success in developing students of good character. He maintains high standards for himself and models living life with compassion for others and with integrity. His students respect him and the perspectives he holds dear.”

Armstrong received his B.A. from Princeton and his M.A. from American University. Now 71, he says he intends to keep teaching.

“It’s just too delightful to deal with youngsters of 16 and 17 years old to give it up.” As a Presidential Distinguished Teacher in 1992, he was received at the White House.

He has also been a grader of the Advanced Placement Modern European History exam and has conducted courses for fledgling teachers, and seminars for experienced teachers on the subject. Devoted to his profession, he says “my only regret in life has been that I did not have the opportunity to start teaching earlier.”

Sharon Erickson Harman

Moorefield High School, Moorefield, W. Va.

Senior Albert Leatherman III from Moorefield, W.Va., recalls Harman as “someone who has influenced my life profoundly,” enthusiastically nominating Harman for her passion for teaching, determination to challenge students, and her academic as well as personal contributions to his high school in rural West Virginia.

The sacrifices Harman made to teach at Moorefield High School are not lost on former College Council co-president Leatherman, who notes that she could have “embarked on a research career in botany that would bring her acclaim and a high multiple of her teacher’s salary.” Instead, “she wanted to help the next generation of students succeed. She is no ordinary educator, nor did her path to teaching follow anything resembling conventionality.”

She brought Advanced Placement biology to a high school that had no advanced placement courses, arranged numerous out-of-town academic trips and has spent countless hours tutoring students for science fair projects.

By relating to students, she won their admiration. Her interest in students and her ability to relate to them as people made a positive contribution to the school, as well.

“Helping students feel proud of their school was very important to Dr. Harman,” Leatherman writes. Harman has received numerous other awards for her outstanding teaching, including being named West Virginia Academy of Science Outstanding High School Science Teacher in 1993, Tandy Outstanding Teacher, Ashland Oil Outstanding Teacher, Hardy County Teacher of the Year, among several other awards.

Before teaching in Moorefield, Harman was an assistant professor of biology at WVU and an NIH Post-Doctoral Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. Harman received her B.S. and M.S. from Marshall University in biological sciences, and her Ph.D. also in biological sciences from West Virginia University.

Thomas P. Keelan

Culver Academy, Culver, Ind.

“Tom had as many strategies to excite us about learning as he had students. He knew that students who didn’t thrill at reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream would love the aggressive intellectual confrontation of a quiet chess match, and those who didn’t respond to either would blossom when cast as Titania, or Lysander, or Bottom,” said Williams senior Jonathan Plowman, from Hailey, Ind., in his nomination of Keelan.

“Most of the challenges he invented and executed himself. He is always driven to reach out and pull more students into pursuits which would challenge and thrill them.

“Under him, I studied the philosophers from Socrates to Descartes to Sartre; the classics from Homer to Dante to Chaucer; the Romantic poets and the Gothic novelists; modern writers from Camus to Mamet and Tom Stoppard,” Plowman said.

Robert Smallwood, director of education at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-on-Avon, described Keelan as “an enthusiast who teaches because he wants to share his enthusiasm for literature and drama with his pupils. I saw a production of “Winter’s Tale,” directed by Keelan, that was the product of enormous commitment to, and love for, the play, and of immense hard work too: those young actors understood every word of what is often a difficult and complex text. He seems to me exactly what a teacher should be—a sharer, with his pupils, of his own love for literature.”

Before joining Culver Academies as a senior instructor last year, Keenan taught at the Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho from 1990 to 1999, where he was chair of the English department. Previously, he had been a reporter and staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express and taught at The Oldfields School and Cheverus High School.

He has coached cross-country, soccer, and swimming, and in addition to directing a number of plays at Community, he has been an actor and assistant director with a local professional company. He founded and directed the Chess Club at Community, and served as State Scholastic Director for the Idaho Chess Association from 1997 to 1999.

Keelan received the University of Idaho Teaching Excellence Award in 1994, and special recognition from the Idaho Chess Association in 1997 and 1999 for his contributions to youth. He received his B.A. in English and political science from Williams in 1980, and his M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English.

Shawn J. Mintek

Franklin High School, Seattle, Wash.

In her nomination of Mintek, Williams senior Sophia Kuo, from Seattle, notes that until she took his class in her senior year of high school she had always considered math “a trivial chore,” but Mintek’s “ability to excite students about learning through an enormous enthusiasm for teaching was one of his greatest influences.

Mintek, with his full-body ‘Calculus samurai sword’ movement, made math fun enough to make me and quite a few others get up at 5:30 a.m. to go to ‘extra’ school. Math was suddenly so fun I signed up for calculus at Williams for fun!”

“He wanted his students, many children of immigrant cultures where sexism was part of family life, to know that women were as capable of anything men were. He would remind us of the contributions women have made, and are making, to math whenever possible,” she said.

“He also wanted us to feel as though the things we learned in class were relevant to our day to day lives. Every day that Shawn Mintek teaches, he demonstrates a true and powerful way of improving the world, and positively influencing lives,” she added.

Franklin High principal Tom Bailey wrote of Mintek, “Dr. Mintek is a no nonsense taskmaster respected and valued by students at all ability levels. He is passionate about teaching and will directly challenge anything that interferes with his passion. He has the highest expectations, but will always provide the assistance needed for students to achieve.”

He continued, “Perhaps without realization, he is able to keep the entire staff focused on learning and meaningful activities. I have the highest admiration for Dr. Mintek and he would qualify as one of the finest educators I have known.”

Mintek has taught mathematics courses from basic skills through calculus at Franklin High since 1986. Previously, he was a lecturer in philosophy at Western Washington State College and a shipscaler for Marine Power & Equipment, Co. in Seattle, and he continues to umpire softball in the Seattle Metro area. He was nominated in 1997 to be an “A+ Educator” by the Alliance for Education in Seattle, and was named a Tandy Technology Outstanding Teacher in 1996.

At Franklin High, he has run the lunch time math student peer-tutoring program and coached the Knowledge Bowl team. In addition, he offers early morning review sessions for interested students an hour and a half before school starts, and during Spring Break runs AP calculus test training sessions for those of his students taking the exam.

Mintek earned his B.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1971 and his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Washington in 1977.