Scott Phillips named '24 Nebraska Teacher of the Year

Scott Phillips can't really remember what inspired him to start reaching out to the public school teachers who taught him growing up, but as he explains it, he just wanted to tell them “Thank you.”

“I started this tradition of trying to reconnect with my teachers a handful of years ago. I wanted to tell them how they inspired me,” Phillips said.

It was a few encouraging words from his high school math teacher, Mr. Harris, that first set him on the path to becoming an educator himself.

“I still remember the moment clearly to this day. I was on a school bus helping one of my friends with her math homework and Mr. Harris turned around in his bus seat and he said to me, ‘You’d be a good math teacher someday,’” said Phillips. “That one little comment stuck with me for all these years.”

Phillips never took an advanced math class while in high school and began his freshman year of college as a broadcast journalism major, but the words from his math teacher stuck with him.

“I reached out to him probably five or six years ago and told him, ‘Hey, that made a big impact on me and I’m a math teacher now.’”

Phillips is currently in his 14th year of teaching at Aurora Public Schools. He has taught 7th grade math, Pre-Algebra, and a math intervention program. In late September, Phillips was named the 2024 Nebraska Teacher of the Year during a surprise award presentation. The Teacher of the Year program recognizes the contributions of classroom teachers who are exceptionally dedicated, knowledgeable and who can inspire students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn.  

Lessons in Failure

Like many in education, Phillips' approach to teaching was upended by the pandemic and the transition to remote learning, but it has forever changed his approach to education. Phillips utilizes a hybrid-flipped classroom model using videos uploaded to his YouTube channel. Instead of direct instruction during class time, Phillips assigns pre-recorded video lectures to his students. Class time is spent engaging students to problem-solve collaboratively with each other. Phillips calls this approach the “productive struggle” of the learning process.

“I teach a lot about failure because if you're not missing some questions in math, you're probably not being challenged,” Phillips said.

Phillips acknowledges that math has an emotional attachment to the confidence of his students. He believes that children—and their parents—either love or hate math solely based on whether they consider themselves “good” or “bad” at math. Phillips says by the time students reach 7th grade math, this perception can be deep-rooted and sometimes, even generational.

“I really stress to my students that they're going to fail at some point. How they respond to that failure is important,” he said. “It's OK to make mistakes in math because that's going to help you get better at it. Math is a skill that requires practice.”

Math is Everywhere

Phillips uses high-energy activities, music, and games to interact with his students. A major emphasis in Phillips’ classroom is to show his students how math is used in everyday life. As Phillips remembers it, math was everywhere while he was growing up.

"My dad worked in construction management. So, I always joked that as a kid, I was tripping over air compressor cords and that was my normal,” he said.

Joking aside, in the Phillips household, math reached far beyond textbooks. To make his point, Phillips tapped his dad to guest-star in a lesson plan video on how to use Google Earth to calculate the area of a roof.

“Back in the olden days, my dad would have to get in his truck and drive 30 minutes to an hour, go up on the roof and physically measure it to give his customers a roofing estimate,” Phillips explained. “Using Google Earth, you can measure a roof and calculate the area of the compound shape. In class, I have my students work together to use Google Earth to find the area of the school.”

His mom, too, influenced Phillips’ understanding of everyday math.

“She worked in banking and later worked part-time at Walmart.  Sometimes my students kind of scoff at how this applies to their classroom, but I tell them it’s the reason I’m so good with percentages,” he explained.This part-time job meant the Phillips family was eligible for a 10% discount on everything.

“So, I calculated the cost of everything in our cart with the discount applied,” he explained. “Number sense estimation is big for my students. They don't have to know the exact grocery bill before they checkout, but they should have a close estimation of what it should cost. So that way, if it rings up incorrectly, they can kind of catch it in the moment. They can use math doing everyday things, this is just one example.”

Teacher of the Year

Phillips says his main goals as the 2024 Nebraska Teacher of the Year will be to help promote excellence as a habit, encourage a healthy balance in life, and to not be afraid to fail but instead, let failure lead to growth.

“Growing older I’ve realized that failure is a good sign of progress and if we run towards it, we’ll gain a sense of comfort in being uncomfortable. If we never push ourselves out of our comfort zone, we’ll never see true progress.

Teaching is no different and it all starts with the confidence to attempt something innovative, have the courage to try again after you’ve failed, and teaching our students how to deal with setbacks in a healthy manner,” said Phillips.

“Everyone has had a teacher leave a lasting impact on their life and I aim to do that as the next Nebraska Teacher of the Year.”

Phillips was one of three finalists for the Nebraska Teacher of the Year award. Shelly Mowinkel, Milford High School, and Amy Page, Forest Station Elementary School in Omaha, were also finalists and will be recognized as Award of Excellence winners. All are members of NSEA.

Phillips will participate in the National Teacher of the Year competition later this year.