For the second time in three years, a member of the Morgan Park Academy faculty has received the University of Chicago Outstanding Educator Award for excellence in teaching and mentorship.
Derek Smith, who teaches high school English and social studies, was recognized for this national award after being nominated by Aariel Batchelor, a University of Chicago freshman who graduated from MPA last spring.
“Mr. Smith passionately challenged us and his dedication to his students was evident,” Batchelor wrote, praising Smith’s dry sense of humor and knack for having “a relevant ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ comic at hand for any situation.”
A former Peace Corps volunteer who taught in Nepal and Moldova, Smith is in his sixth year as an MPA faculty member. He also serves as the school’s Director of Service Learning.
“This is a well-deserved recognition for Derek,” Upper School principal Tom Drahozal said. “Derek has a passion for learning that is contagious for his students and as our Director of Service Learning, he is the foundation of our efforts to continue the Academy’s tradition of service leadership and to instill in students the value of giving back to others.”
Founded in 1873, Morgan Park Academy is an independent college preparatory school, enrolling 450 students from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. It was ranked among Chicago magazine’s top-performing private schools this year, ranking as the city’s No. 8 private high school.
Smith joins Marius Radulescu (2015) as recent MPA teachers to receive the Outstanding Educator Award.
Award recipients are selected annually from nominations submitted by hundreds of University of Chicago admitted students, “inspired by teachers who have literally changed the course of their lives through excellent teaching and mentorship,” the university said in announcing the awards.
“In recognition of their profound influence, the Office of College Admissions grants the Outstanding Educator Award to teachers who have demonstrated exceptional dedication to the education and personal development of their students. True learning is a collaborative experience that requires patience, selflessness, and passion. We are proud to celebrate the incredible work of all our Outstanding Educators!”
Batchelor took two English classes with Smith and worked with him as a member of the Service Council.
“Mr. Smith passionately challenged us, through the mediums of language and literature, to recognize and holistically evaluate our worldviews and ourselves,” she wrote.
“His dedication to his students was certainly evident in the creation of his rigorous and innovative syllabus for our AP English Language class. His dry sense of humor was on display in moments like playing ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’ by the Pet Shop Boys while passing back our papers. And his teaching influence more subtly and permanently manifested through his keen, counseling ear, with a relevant ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ comic at hand for any situation.”
The personal connection that Batchelor describes is common at Morgan Park Academy, where the student experience is built around small class sizes and strong teacher-student relationships.
With a ratio of one teacher for every eight students, MPA students in grades 9-12 not only have the opportunity to speak up and stand out in the classroom, on stage, and on the athletic field, but also to develop genuine, personal relationship with teachers that foster academic achievement and create a sense of community.
Students develop a worldview rooted in their own culture while broadening and deepening their thinking beyond the boundaries of campus, city, and country, emerging as confident young adults, original thinkers, and creative problem solvers. They progress into the next stages of their lives well-prepared for advanced college coursework and poised to meet and exceed the high expectations that they refined at MPA.
“One of my favorite aspects of teaching at MPA,” Smith said, “is our small community and the connection I have with students, including the fact that those connections often continue past high school graduation and on into their adult lives.
“Receiving an award like this is incredibly humbling, and especially so when it comes through a nomination from a former student. I am glad to know that I made an impact on Aariel’s life and I look forward to seeing her succeed at the University of Chicago and beyond.”
Morgan Park Academy is glad to count Derek Smith as a valued and respected member of its community and congratulates him on this well-deserved award.