Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Regarding Tia Holliday

One cannot rightly design a school without first imagining who might teach there. Always, my imagination builds on a foundation of great teachers, because one must hope for what is possible.

By my own measure, I know there are great teachers in our world. I know this because my own life was blessed by Tia Holliday, who was a great teacher for my two daughters during their time in high school.

In 2007, I nominated Tia Holliday for a national teaching award. The following is my letter of nomination.

Steven A. Sylwester

* * *

March 23, 2007

Cheryl Kleckner
PAEMST Science Coordinator
State Dept. of Education
255 Capitol St. N.E.
Salem, OR 97310

Dear Cheryl Kleckner,

King Solomon wrote in his proverbs: “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act.” (Proverbs 3:27 NIV) That ancient wisdom still applies today, and I write this letter from its wellspring.

It is with great pleasure that I hereby nominate Tia Holliday, the chemistry teacher extraordinaire at North Eugene High School in Eugene, Oregon, to be a candidate for the 2007 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

I have known Tia Holliday since September 2000 when my oldest daughter Eva first became a student in one of her chemistry classes. In the final tally, Holliday was Eva’s chemistry teacher for two years, and then was my youngest daughter Liesel’s chemistry teacher for three years. From the beginning and throughout her entire tutelage of my two daughters, Tia Holliday exemplified the very best qualities of the teaching profession, and it is a wonderful privilege for me now to publicly honor her and to speak well of her devotion to her students.

I come from a family of classroom teachers going back two generations. My paternal grandfather was a Minnesota farm boy who became a teacher and founded a school in Portland, Oregon, in 1905 that grew and grew into what is now Concordia University. My father is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon who started his career as an elementary school teacher. Throughout my growing up, it was instilled in me that good teachers are people who deserve the highest esteem, and rightly so.

To be a “good teacher” requires something special—something truly extraordinary. That “something” is not the stuff of a job, but is the substance of a calling. “Good teachers” are “called” to the profession, and so give a measure of devotion to their students and to their craft that is uncommon in the working world—and that devotion alone is deserving of praise and the utmost respect.

Unfortunately, not all teachers are good teachers. Some are incompetent. Some are merely competent and able, but are lacking the devotion that defines good teachers. Good teachers are a treasure.

Someone once said of my paternal grandfather that he gave without measure. That is perhaps the highest compliment a teacher can be given because it makes known the teacher’s genuine love both for the students and for the subject matter being taught. Tia Holliday is a teacher who gives without measure.

But Tia Holliday has another quality that excels all “good teacher” distinctions—and words really do fail to give an adequate description. At some level, even the “good teachers” are people who have a personal life, too. Tia Holliday has a family; she has her own children—children who call her Mom, not Teacher. Even demanding parents like I have been at times during my daughters’ schooling must acknowledge a point where compromise is not only reasonable, it is to be expected. I have “compromised” my expectations of teachers many times over the years, and I have even given up in despair on rare occasions. But, in the case of Tia Holliday, I have never “compromised” myself at all because I have never had to; she has always surpassed my expectations!

Tia Holliday is more than a “good teacher.” Tia Holliday is a great teacher!

North Eugene High School is a school with more than its fair share of average students, but it does have high-achieving students, too. Both of my daughters are brilliant students. Eva will graduate with honors from the University of Oregon’s Clark Honors College this spring at age 20, having completed a double major in Psychology and Religious Studies. Eva is a University of Oregon Presidential Scholar and a Robert Byrd Honors Scholar. Liesel is a 2007 National Merit Finalist who will graduate from North Eugene High School this spring with an accumulated GPA greater than 4.00.

Many teachers are seriously challenged by the presence of brilliant students in their classrooms. Too often, they unmercifully drag the brilliant students down to the common level where they burden them with boredom in the classroom and the added insult of unnecessary busywork that they masquerade as homework. I have witnessed firsthand the tears and anger and rage that sometimes results when brilliant students encounter the stupefying unfairness of an uninspired (and therefore uninspiring) teacher.

Neither one of my daughters ever complained about Tia Holliday as a person or as a teacher. Furthermore, neither one of my daughters ever complained about the chemistry curriculum taught by Tia Holliday or any of her homework assignments. Additionally, Tia Holliday’s tests were always deemed fair. If these points were all there was, they alone would be uncommon enough to be remarkably significant and noteworthy. Both of my daughters cared about their high school education, and both were vocally critical about the shortcomings. When things were not good, I certainly knew about it.

Regarding Tia Holliday, I only ever heard words of praise and various descriptions of joy. Both Eva and Liesel thoroughly enjoyed all of their time in Tia Holliday’s classroom—and not because it was easy, but because they actually learned something in a challenging and enriching environment from a teacher who pushed them hard and yet somehow made chemistry fun. And not just fun, but sometimes exhilaratingly fun! Without question, Tia Holliday inspired both of my daughters and gave them an understanding of science that was defining and essential in changing each of their lives in different ways.

Eva has become an excellent science writer. She was the Science, Technology & Business beat writer for the Oregon Daily Emerald newspaper for one year; was a summer intern science writer for UPI in Washington, DC; and was a summer intern science writer at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. (Examples of Eva’s writing can be found by Googling “Eva Sylwester” and “Eva A. Sylwester”)

Liesel’s story is still unfolding, and is worth telling:

My wife and I have always known that Liesel is an incredibly gifted visual artist. Growing up, her curiosity always seemed to manifest in art projects of one sort or another, so we never made the science connection in her case, even though she watched a lot of Discovery Channel TV from early childhood on. If the opportunity had been there, we most definitely would have placed Liesel in an arts academy high school—and it would have been the mistake of our lives if we had done so.

Liesel came home from her very first days of high school complaining bitterly about her Biology class; it was boring, and she hated it! I immediately contacted Tia Holliday to find out if Liesel would be accepted into a Chemistry class as a new freshman. Tia Holliday had previously taught Eva for two years, and so confidently welcomed Liesel into a Chemistry class, even though Liesel was the only freshman in the class. Quite literally, it was love at first sight; Liesel’s life changed the day she first walked into a Chemistry classroom.

Simply, Liesel quickly became the best student in the Chemistry class. Because North Eugene High School has a five-period day, an entire year of instruction (except in the case of Advanced Placement classes) is completed in half a school year. During the second half of Liesel’s freshman year, she took Physics, and was again the best student in the class. (For reference: Eva took Chemistry as a high school sophomore and A.P. Chemistry as a high school senior, and never took Physics in high school.)

As a sophomore, Liesel took A.P. Chemistry, and was the best student in the class. There was one other sophomore student in the class, and the rest were juniors and seniors. Liesel scored a “5” on the national Advanced Placement Chemistry test at the end of her sophomore year, which is the highest score possible. At that point, Tia Holliday could have said that her work with Liesel was finished because there were no more Chemistry course offerings available at the high school. But at that point Tia Holliday instead did something heroic and remarkable, she created an Organic Chemistry class.

As a junior, Liesel took Organic Chemistry during the first half of the school year, and was again the best student of the very few students in the class. As Winter Term at the University of Oregon approached, I contacted Professor Greg Williams to find out if he would accept Liesel into the Advanced General Chemistry Lab class he taught there. The class is a Fall/Winter/Spring 3-term sequence class, so Professor Williams was extremely reluctant to allow Liesel—a high school junior—to enter the sequence at Winter Term. When Eva found out what I was doing, she went berserk! Eva had dropped out of the Advanced General Chemistry Lab sequence after taking Fall Term a couple of years earlier, and stated emphatically that the course was notoriously difficult, even for the very best chemistry students at the university. Well, I persisted and Professor Williams was finally persuaded to talk with Tia Holliday regarding Liesel—and Professor Williams then let Liesel enter the Advanced General Chemistry Lab sequence at Winter Term. And Liesel excelled. She received an “A-“ grade Winter Term and an “A” grade Spring Term, and Professor Williams described that Liesel was one of the top two or three students in the class by the end of Spring Term. Amazing!

Also as a junior, Liesel took A.P. Biology, and was the best student in the class. At the end of her junior year, she scored a “5” on the national Advanced Placement Biology test.

As a senior, Liesel is taking College Now Physics, which is a college 200-level Physics class. Also, she is taking A.P. Calculus. And she is at the top of the class in both classes.

In my opinion, we owe Liesel’s success in science and math to Tia Holliday. Without Tia Holliday’s inspiration and her willingness to do everything possible and then some, Liesel would not be where she is now. It is as simple as that.

Liesel’s life has changed. Her plans now are to earn both a Bachelor of Science with honors degree in Chemistry and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Painting, a combined undergraduate course of study that will take her five years to complete. And she is determined to find a career path that will use both her science skills and her art skills.

It is important to note that Liesel has regularly taken art classes at both Lane Community College and the University of Oregon since the summer after her freshman year in high school. During the summer between her sophomore and junior years in high school, her art professor at the University of Oregon recommended to her that she get out of high school as soon as possible to allow her to gain early admission to one of the best art schools in the United States. The art professor recommended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and was fully confident that Liesel would be admitted. A gallery of Liesel’s artwork can be seen at

During Spring Term last year, Professor Greg Williams advised me that Liesel should attend Harvard or Stanford as a chemistry student, and described that Liesel was in the top one percent of all the students he had ever taught in more than 20 years as a university chemistry professor, including the years he taught at Princeton while earning his doctorate. Remarkably, neither my wife nor I have ever taken a chemistry class, so our contribution to Liesel’s success in chemistry is zero on an academic level. We encouraged her, but we could not offer her any help whatsoever beyond encouragement.

Quite likely, Liesel’s abilities in the sciences and the visual arts indicate a special genius. However, it is a mistaken judgment to think that “genius” is her own teacher, and that somehow “genius” survives and thrives no matter what. “Genius” is no doubt a “born-with” quality fueled by destiny, but that particular quality can only ever be seen after the fact in long retrospect. And, sadly, that quality can only be seen among the survivors. What is certain is this: much—way too much—“genius” simply withers and dies without ever producing anything at all. The “genius” was there, but nobody saw it. Worse, nobody—not even the teachers—sparked the inspiration that gives “genius” life, and so nobody—not even the teachers— nurtured the “genius” and developed it, and thereby gave it confidence and self-knowledge and, most of all, self-worth.

“Genius” is not easy. In fact, it is scary and lonely at the top, and very socially isolating.

Liesel’s mother is an artist, and has cared for and nurtured the artist in Liesel since even before giving her birth. But no one could do the same for the scientist in Liesel. That is until Liesel first walked into Tia Holliday’s chemistry classroom as a new freshman.

God bless Tia Holliday! Really, I do not know if Tia Holliday is a religious person, but I do know that her contribution to Liesel’s life has been divine. It is not enough to say, “thank you.” My gratitude is so deep and so heartfelt that I must say this: Tia Holliday has been a blessing in Liesel’s life—an evidence of God’s presence!

I am reminded of the Bible story in which Jesus healed ten lepers and only one came back to thank him (Luke 17:11-19). In a real sense, teachers are healers; they heal ignorance and prejudice and stupidity by teaching their students how to observe and analyze the world with keen critical thinking and communication skills. And teachers do their work with little thanks at all. Out of the hundreds of students Tia Holliday has taught throughout her career, I wonder how many have come back to thank her. As in the Bible story, many of Holliday’s students could not know how important she was in their lives until sometime later.

As Liesel’s father, I know now what a great teacher Tia Holliday is, and how foundationally important she has been in Liesel’s life. Liesel may not fully appreciate Tia Holliday until years from now when she might be shepherding her own children through high school, so I will speak for her and all others who have been blessed by Tia Holliday along the way. Tia Holliday fully deserves to receive a 2007 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. There might be other teachers who are as deserving as Tia Holliday, but there are certainly no other teachers who are more deserving.

This nomination letter is long, but it is neither an overstatement nor an extended brag by a proud father. Rather, it is a full recognition that teaching is ultimately the challenge of one teacher successfully responding to the needs of one student. Education is not about environments and curriculum and textbooks and technology aids and class size, though all of those concerns are important. What education is about is this: one teacher being able to and willing to teach one student while at the same time teaching every student, including the student with special needs—even the most brilliant student in the class.

Quite possibly, Tia Holliday has never before had a student like Liesel, and never will have another one like her again. And she had no forewarning at all. In fact, if anything, Tia Holliday discovered Liesel, and then stepped up to the challenge of teaching her. Holliday’s confidence, competence, and enthusiasm kept Liesel enthralled and learning through three years, and then her commitment to Liesel continued as genuine interest and support after Professor Greg Williams took over as teacher. And that is the point—and that is the measure of a great teacher!

Two other items are also especially noteworthy.

Firstly, Tia Holliday actively creates interest in chemistry at the middle school level by having her best high school chemistry students give chemistry experiment demonstrations at the middle schools that feed into North Eugene High School. She does this at the end of every school year, and I am sure it serves as a successful method for recruiting new students for her Chemistry classes. Liesel very much enjoyed her opportunities to give chemistry experiment demonstrations, so I would say the program benefits the participating high school students, too.

Secondly, Tia Holliday possesses the wisdom that knows and understands the value of the total educational experience created by a successful high school. She knows and understands that what she does cannot be done well in a vacuum, and that her success depends in part on the success of the whole school. Consequently, Tia Holliday gets involved. She has been an active member of the North Eugene High School Site Council for many years, and is currently serving as president of the council. Liesel served as a student representative on the council for two years because Tia Holliday asked her to, and the experience proved to be valuable and worthwhile. High school politics are difficult and sometimes frustrating, and God bless those who are willing to endure the fight that comes with instituting needed change. Again, God bless Tia Holliday!

A final thought is this: If past winners of Presidential Awards of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching are given the opportunity to occasionally meet to develop recommendations for our Nation’s teachers, I can assure you that Tia Holliday would be someone who would get involved and make meaningful contributions of time and energy. And, certainly, she would contribute good ideas, too! Tia Holliday is a rare gem. She has been a blessing in my life and in the lives of my two daughters. I know this. I also know that Tia Holliday is absolutely deserving of a 2007 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.


Steven A. Sylwester

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