Williams Announces Five Recipients of Olmsted Awards for Secondary School Teachers

Media contact: Noelle Lemoine, communications assistant; tele: (413) 597-4277; email: [email protected]

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., May 16, 2011 – Williams College will award the annual George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching to five outstanding high school teachers on Saturday, June 4.

The recipients are: Thomas W. Dorman, an English teacher at Cascade Middle School in Sedro-Woolley, Wash.; Abigail B. Erdmann, an English teacher at Brookline High School in Brookline, Mass.; Andrew L. Lipps, a math teacher at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.; John P. O’Malley, a social studies teacher at South Kingston High School in Wakefield, R.I.; and Gerald Zaffuts, a music teacher at Averill Park High School in Averill Park, N.Y.

Each year, Williams College seniors nominate high school teachers who played influential roles in their lives and learning. A committee of faculty, staff, and students choose winners from among the nominees. Recipients of the award receive $3,000, and an additional $2,500 is given to the recipient’s school. The Olmsted Prize was established in 1976 with an endowment from the estates of George Olmsted Jr. and his wife.

Thomas W. Dorman, Cascade Middle School, Sedro-Woolley, Wash. (formerly Sedro-Woolley High School, Sedro-Woolley, Wash.)

“Mr. Dorman taught us that our lives could be shaped and influenced for the better by what had previously been considered just ‘required reading,'” wrote Williams College seniors Hilary Dolstad and Tarra Martin. “When the end of Of Mice and Men brought the whole class to tears, instead of being uncool it was a sign of desirable qualities—of sensitivity, of passion, of being alive to the world outside of our little town.”

In addition to redefining the frontiers of his students’ intellects and imaginations, Thomas Dorman broke convention in 2008 when he volunteered to leave his AP English classes at Sedro-Woolley High School to start an honors English program at Cascade Middle School. Now recognized for his outstanding work on the honors English program, he is shifting his focus to the many students at the middle school who struggle to pass state-mandated reading tests.

His students practice Moby Dick call-and-response chants and play games of literary dodgeball, but those are only part of Dorman’s influence; he is also a tireless mentor for students applying to competitive colleges, drawing on 10 years of teaching experience at the La Jolla High School, a high-achieving school in San Diego, Calif. Dorman continues to raise funds for the Farthest/Best Sedro-Woolley Community Travel Fund, a scholarship he established to allow high school seniors to visit prospective colleges. Under his guidance, Dolstad and Martin became the first two students from their high school to apply to Williams College.

“He is the first in the parking lot in the morning and the last to leave,” said Scott A. McPhee, principal of Cascade Middle School. McPhee also spoke of Dorman’s popular student-centered lunches and after-school tutoring sessions, which examine topics ranging from allegory in the movie Monsters vs. Aliens to algebra. “No one works harder at teaching and learning than Tom,” McPhee said. “He is an inspiration to all in education.”

Abigail Erdmann, Brookline High School, Brookline, Mass.

Anyone who asks Williams senior Tatiana Fernandez why she wants to become a teacher will hear about the deep influence of her high school teacher Abigail Erdmann, whose own inspiration to teach came from an English teacher during her own high school days.

Since 1975, Erdmann has taught at Brookline High’s School-Within-a-School (SWS), an alternative program that gives its 115 sophomores, juniors, and seniors equal ownership with teachers in classrooms and school governance. Even within this groundbreaking program, Erdmann shines. Her 33-year-old course “Individuals and Institutions,” which incorporates formative field trips to students’ former elementary schools and to a local prison, continues to be one of the most popular SWS offerings. Erdmann encourages her students to debate and to listen, to relate individual histories and scholarly theories, to think and to act.

Fernandez said she remembers Erdmann as a teacher who made learning both intensely personal and intensely rigorous, whether in “noticing every bit of your effort, every detail of your paper” in weighty interdisciplinary classes or in pushing the SWS community to address social justice issues. Erdmann led two of the groups in which Fernandez was active during her SWS career: the Students of Color committee and a fundraising group called Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. “She was the loudest advocate for those who are normally silenced,” Fernandez said.

Erdmann said she feels most alive in the classroom, and SWS students would be glad to know that she has no plans of retiring. “Abby knows every one of her students well, across the spectrum of students, over time,” said Robert H. Weintraub, headmaster of Brookline High. “The classroom belongs not just to her, but to the kids in it; it’s a classroom where students have power, create community, and get to know each other intimately.”

Andrew L. Lipps, Georgetown Day School, Washington, D.C.

When Williams senior Abby Martin experienced chronic vision problems during high school, she found a firm advocate in Andrew Lipps. “He stood up against those who believed I should be content with middling performance; he pushed for the accommodations that would allow me to excel,” she said. “Andy believed in me when I struggled to believe.”

Lipps has distinguished himself as a mathematics teacher. Martin noted that Lipps’ Advanced Placement BC calculus class completed the challenging syllabus six weeks ahead of schedule, opening up time for more advanced material In addition, Lipps offers college-level classes for gifted students in linear algebra, multivariable calculus, and group theory. Under his coaching, the school’s math team has grown from a dispirited group of fewer than 10 students to a regionally outstanding team of almost 50.  Last year, one of Lipps’ students represented the U.S. at the International Math Olympiad.

Prior to joining Georgetown Day School in 2000, Lipps spent 24 years as a trial and appellate lawyer in Washington, D.C. After enrolling in a mathematics master’s program to reconnect with his college major, he decided to become a mathematics teacher and has been at Georgetown Day ever since. Martin noted that Lipps’ passion for social justice remains a strong presence in the classroom. “Lessons often begin a few minutes late to accommodate discussions on recent events on the school campus or far beyond its walls,” she said. “These lessons, more than any lesson on integrals or Taylor series, make Andy a truly remarkable teacher.”

Russell Shaw, head of school at Georgetown Day, echoed Martin’s praise. “Andy has developed into a superlative colleague, a thoughtful advocate for the faculty, and a fully present and engaged member of the larger school community,” he said. “Most of all, he has become an inspirational teacher who really gets that all kids possess genius.”

John P. O’Malley, South Kingston High School, Wakefield, R.I.

For her honors project in theater and anthropology last month, Williams senior Meghan Rose Donnelly created a collaborative stage performance examining the nature of friendship in Williamstown and in Bali, Indonesia. The project was a culmination of an academic and personal journey that began with what Donnelly calls “unparalleled teaching” in John O’Malley’s boundary-crossing, richly creative classroom.

“Mr. O’Malley taught lessons that involved throwing money out of windows, solving the Arab-Israeli and India-Pakistan conflicts, and emptying burlap sacks of potatoes onto our classroom floor,” Donnelly said. “We memorized the capitals of all European and African countries, frequently read outside our textbook, and began to believe we mattered.” In his classroom, O’Malley maintains a collection of newspapers, magazines, and CDs in the classroom, rotating the material as the syllabus progresses through geographic regions.

The lessons and the classroom, as well as Donnelly’s thesis, mirror O’Malley’s own international and interdisciplinary background. Shortly after graduating from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in history, he travelled extensively in Europe and South Asia. Upon his return to the U.S., he attended graduate school and spent two decades in construction and commercial agriculture before realizing “a desperate need to share my acquired skills, knowledge, and insights with others,” he said. Fourteen years later, there is a waiting list of students eager to benefit from that sharing, which has included bringing musicians from Sierra Leone to the South Kingston school library, and taking South Kingston students trekking through Berber villages in Morocco.

“John is a legend here, not for what he teaches kids about the world but for how he helps students determine for themselves what they think about the world around them,” said Bob McCarthy, principal of South Kingston High. “He is not only a teacher of social studies but a catalyst for discovery in all its forms.”

Gerald Zaffuts, Averill Park High School, Averill Park, N.Y.

If not for a chance event, Williams senior Laura Staugaitis would never have written a college application essay inspired by Gerald Zaffuts, her high school director of bands. When Zaffuts began his undergraduate studies in music performance, he was determined not to become a high school music teacher. Instead, he completed graduate and post-graduate studies in performance, held college teaching positions, founded the acclaimed Skidmore Jazz Institute, and pursued a distinguished career as a trombonist.

Then an unexpected invitation led him to a temporary position at Averill Park High School, and he was captivated. Zaffuts returned the next year and saw his teaching deepen. “Rather than teach the subject to the student I began to teach the student through the subject,” he said. “It was no longer the importance of fundamentals to the process of learning music—it was the importance of fundamentals to the success of the individual.”

As his teaching became more personal, Zaffuts also increasingly treated his student musicians as professionals, with clear results. Staugaitis said she recalls both the expectation at rehearsals that all energy be “instantly focused on the musical task at hand,” and the invitations to perform at Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, and the Beijing Olympics. Besides the accolades, however, she treasures the rehearsals that were put on hold for “Bagel Day” or to discuss the role of the artist in society—and, above all, the vibrant and vulnerable community of that Zaffuts cultivated. “With Mr. Zaffuts, we learned who we were and who we could be,” she said.

Colleen B. Gomes, principal of Averill Park High School, called Zaffuts a “consummate professional with a heart of gold” and counts herself as one who has been changed by his work. “He motivates his students to be better people in all that they do,” Gomes said. “What he gives to them as inspiration really does last a lifetime.”


Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.

To visit the college on the Internet: www.williams.edu Williams College can also be found on Facebook: www.facebook.com/williamscollege and Twitter: twitter.com/williamscollege

Published May 16, 2011