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Aurora Middle School math teacher is 2024 Nebraska Teacher of the Year

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Aurora Middle School math teacher is 2024 Nebraska Teacher of the Year

Sep 20, 2023 | 2:23 pm ET
By Zach Wendling
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Aurora Middle School math teacher is 2024 Nebraska Teacher of the Year
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Scott Phillips, at center, joins his family after his surprise announcement as the 2024 Nebraska Teacher of the Year on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Aurora, Neb. Phillips' wife, Carissa, stands to his right with his three daughters. They are flanked by Scott Phillips' parents and his sister at the far right. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

AURORA, Neb. — The Nebraska Department of Education announced Wednesday that an Aurora Middle School math teacher is the 2024 Nebraska Teacher of the Year.

Scott Phillips, now in his 14th year of teaching in Aurora, has taught seventh grade math, pre-algebra and a math intervention program. He also coaches basketball, is an adjunct instructor at Doane University and a member of the National Education Association, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and Nebraska State Education Association.

Phillips said he is humbled and excited to represent Nebraska in the education realm.

“It’s a lifestyle. Being a teacher is a way of life for my family because my wife also teaches in kindergarten,” Phillips said. “Obviously for Aurora, it’s a pretty big deal, and being able to represent not just our state but our community of Aurora is a really special thing.”

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Brian Maher presented the award to Phillips in the middle of a lesson Wednesday morning. He joked with students, “Maybe you can tell me if he deserved it,” earning a laugh from students, Phillips and Phillips’ family members, who also joined the surprise.

Maher noted Phillips’ energy and making math fun were reasons for the award.

‘He is a fantastic teacher’

Principal Jeremy Wieseler joined the celebration and told the students Phillips does an “awesome job” and that he’s known that since the first time he stepped into Phillips’ classroom.

“I was just like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of fun to be at,’” Wieseler said. “I appreciate everything he does — he is a fantastic teacher. I can’t think of someone more deserving of this.”

Phillips was previously nominated for Teacher of the Year several years ago but decided not to continue with the application process, noting he felt at the time he wasn’t “worthy.”

David Jespersen with the Nebraska Department of Education said the department had about 90 nominations this year, and about 11 made it to the written review process. There were two finalists in addition to Phillips: Shelly Mowinkel of Milford High School and Amy Page of Forest Station Elementary School in Omaha.

A panel of Nebraska educators annually selects a “Teacher of the Year.” The program recognizes the contributions of classroom teachers “who are exceptionally dedicated, knowledgeable, skilled and who have the ability to inspire students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn,” according to a news release.

Making math fun

Phillips noted teaching middle school students can be a little daunting at times. One of his objectives is for them to leave his classroom with more confidence in themselves and with math.

“Math can sometimes be a pretty scary subject for students and for people because they look at it as like, ‘Well, I’m either a math person or I’m not a math person,’” Phillips said.

Part of Phillips’ teaching style includes making learning fun, including jokes, playing the guitar and rapping. It’s about twisting things, Phillips said with a laugh, clarifying it’s not to “trick kids” into learning but adapting non-classroom activities for real-world lessons.

For example, Phillips said, this Friday he will lead a “math auction” and have the students auction off points in their answers. He also has a YouTube channel he uses to engage with students.

After the presentation, Phillips taught students subtraction using negative integers. 

In a problem of taking away -47 in a string of values, Phillips told his class it was similar to taking away 47 villains or bad guys and adding 47 heroes, or taking away $47 that might be owed someone.

‘That’s what you want in a teacher’

Addi Coplen, one of Phillips’ students, said she didn’t like math before starting with Phillips, and even though some of his jokes may make her go, “Oh, Mr. Phillips,” she thinks he’s funny and has made her enjoy math for the first time.

“He just started teaching math a little bit differently than other teachers would,” Addi said. “He doesn’t make it boring like, ‘Hey, just solve these problems.’ He’s just like, ‘Hey, let’s make this fun.’”

Davis Nachtigal, another student, said Phillips makes his teaching fun and special by being himself.

“That’s what you want in a teacher,” Davis said.

Unafraid to fail

Phillips will participate in the National Teacher of the Year competition later this year and will represent the state’s educators at various conventions or speaking engagements over the next year. One of his primary messages will be for teachers not to be afraid of failing.

“I know that sounds a little funny, but I feel like sometimes we’re so afraid of not having a lesson go really well,” Phillips said.

Two more of Phillips’ goals are to promote excellence as a habit and encourage a healthy balance in life.

Phillips and the two finalists — Mowinkel and Page — will be honored by the Nebraska State Board of Education at a November reception.