Dedicated. Jovial. Persistent. These are all words that could be used to describe University of Rochester undergraduates. But at an awards ceremony during commencement weekend, a few students used those words to describe a special group of people—high school teachers Christopher Aukerman, Chung Chan, Stephen Robinson, and Jennifer Webster—who were awarded the University's Singer Family Prize for Excellence in Secondary Teaching.
All University seniors are invited to nominate a high school teacher for consideration for the Singer Family Prize, which honors teachers for their significant influence on Rochester's graduating seniors. At the ceremony, award winners received a plaque, $3,000 for each teacher, and $2,500 for their schools. The Singer Prize recipients also were invited to the University's commencement ceremony on May 16 to watch their former students receive college diplomas.
"The Paul Singer Family Foundation feels strongly that while devoted secondary school teachers play a vital role in the intellectual development of American society, they often receive little recognition or acclaim for their endeavors," said Gordon Singer, son of Rochester alumnus Paul Singer, about the prize.
Student Julianna Hopkins, who nominated Christopher Aukerman, a history teacher at Duxbury High School in Duxbury, Mass., would agree.
"As a student, you could tell that Mr. Aukerman was loved by his students, because there would always be someone wanting to talk with him after class, and even with this rush of students, he would set aside time to talk with each and every one of them," Hopkins wrote in her nominating letter. "He would give us advice that really applied to who we were as people."
For Shirley Liang, Chung Chan, a social studies and economics teacher at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., was a principal reason she enrolled at Rochester.
"I am thankful for being one of his students, because he guided me to persistently and bravely pursue my dreams," she explained. In her letter, Liang described his work with immigrant students enrolled in John Dewey's bilingual social studies classes and how he spent hours after school and on weekends helping students prepare for the SATs and encouraging them to apply to colleges and universities.
"I am very sure this kind of life-changing experience did not only happen to me, but also happened and will continue to happen to many students, as long as Mr. Chan unreservedly and unconditionally dedicates himself to his teaching," she said.
The third Singer Award was given to Jennifer Webster, the assistant principal at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. Nominated by Eric Weissmann; Webster taught social students and served as the student government advisor before earning a promotion to her current position. While under her guidance, Weissmann said her influence had a dramatic effect on his career at Rochester.
"I ran for class council and student government because Ms. Webster taught me I could make a difference if I took responsibility," wrote Weissmann, who was elected as Rochester's Student Association president in 2009. "She taught me how to be a good leader by teaching me about responsibility, organization, giving back to the community, and how to deal with disappointment."
He cited the many times Webster helped him see that not everything goes as planned. "She taught me that in life, you need to be able to roll with the punches. This is one the most important lessons I could have learned," he explained.
After graduation, senior Randy Mehlenbacher will attend graduate school and he credits Stephen Robinson, a global studies and psychology teacher at Wayland-Cohocton Central School District in Wayland, N.Y., for sparking his interest in education.
"Mr. Robinson's jovial personality and unique sense of humor blended together perfectly to encourage his student to learn ... and to ensure a deeper understanding of the material," he explained. "He has inspired me to pursue a career in teaching. If I one day become an educator as respected and as effective at teaching as he is, I would consider myself successful."