Not for Sitting Still

Joy Sawyer Mulligan
Wave after wave of applause swept two of Thacher’s finest faculty nearly off their feet when their students and colleagues put hands together for them in an all-School Assembly.
Wave after wave of applause swept two of Thacher’s finest faculty nearly off their feet when their students and colleagues put hands together for them in an all-School Assembly. And so the word’s out: Cecilia Ortiz de Howard (Spanish) and Kurt Meyer (Mathematics) are the most recent recipients of two teaching chairs: the Morgan Barnes Chair in Literature and Language and the Kendrick Family Chair in Mathematics and Logic.

These chairs aren’t made for sitting—nor do you typically find Cecilia and Kurt with their feet up. Rather, such honors are ways for schools to recognize distinguished teaching by faculty who are passionate lifelong learners.

As any Spanish student who has shared a classroom with Sra. Ortiz will attest, Cecilia is “known for open, fair-minded observations, academic rigor, and setting high standards for students” (in Head of School Michael Mulligan’s words). She earned her undergraduate degree with Honors at the Instituto Technologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey and her Master’s degree from the University of Alabama.  Arriving at Thacher in 1989, Cecilia had held several positions in Mexico: as an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at her alma mater (and later, Director of English Literature Studies and Translation there), a Researcher in linguistics in Oaxaca, and Director of Bilingual and Bicultural Education at ITESM, Campus Edo, de Mexico.

Here, at a school she values “for its [clear] objectives and the Honor Code, and for eager, dedicated students,” she has taught all levels of Spanish, has been an active advisor for Senior Exhibitions, and has orchestrated annual service trips to La Puerta de Fe, an orphanage in Ensenada, as well as summer homestay-language immersion trips to the coastal city of San Lucar de Barremeda.

The Morgan Barnes Chair Cecilia now holds is one of the first five “Great Teaching Chairs,” one of the major endowment components of the Ninth Decade Fund Program in the 1970s. It honors a beloved teacher (1903-1910) and headmaster (1917- 1936).

Kurt, who first learned about Thacher via the Emma Willard School exchange program of the mid-1970s (there, he headed up the Math Department and was Dean of Students), graduated from Bowdoin College with a BA in Mathematics and Music, and then went on to Smith, where he earned an MAT in Mathematics. “Wise, disciplined, humorous, sensitive, and understanding,” said Michael Mulligan, “Kurt has a classroom style that encourages trust, confidence, and thorough learning.” At CdeP since 1984, he has served in many capacities: as Chair of the Math Department, Chair of the Arts Department, Dean of Faculty, Director of Technology, Board representative, coach of basketball and track, horse camper and backpacker, innovator in many ways (in computer programming within the curriculum, and outside of it in the Teach The Teachers Collaborative, as well as in providing Internet access to various community organizations throughout the Ojai Valley). Kurt received Ojai’s Educator of the Year Award in 1999, was recognized by Los Angeles’ Mayor Riordan for Outstanding Contribution to Students in LA County Schools, and was honored in June as “the wisest, most open-minded, closest teacher, confidant, and friend” (quoth Presidential Scholar Alexander Krey CdeP 2007) at that program’s Teacher Awards Dinner. Kurt’s most recent accolade came this fall, when Stanford sent word that he was a winner of one of their Exceptional Teacher Awards.

Like Cecilia, Kurt calls Thacher’s Honor Code “a distinguishing feature of the School,” and adds, “It elevates the quality of life and the tenor of student-faculty relationships so dramatically!  I love working with students knowing that we’re all pushing for academic excellence in a setting of complete trust and respect.” And he does mean “all,” holding himself to as high a standard of learning as his lucky students: “Keeping pace with the enormous change in math and computer science teaching has been – and continues to be – exciting.”  Ask what the high point in his week is, though, and it’s likely to get him smiling about what’s outside of his M3 classroom: “Thursday night community service spent harmonizing with Thacher students at the St. Joseph’s and Acacias rest homes is something I would never give up.  Our audience loves us and we love them, but the ride back to campus with a van-full of happy students who have been put in a great mood by music-making is a big part of the fun of the night, too.”

As for Kurt’s new seat, The Kendrick Family Chair in Mathematics and Logic, founded in 1980, reflects (in the donors’ words) “the closeness of a family whose members have distinguished themselves for their academic achievement, for their affection for the School, and for their relationship to Thacher that they found here themselves.”

Not too big, not too small—these chairs are just right for these two worthy honorees.


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