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'Eternally optimistic' science teacher gets LHS award created by alum

'Eternally optimistic' science teacher gets LHS award created by alum


Will Smith grew up asking questions.

In his home near the north central Nebraska town of Bartlett -- with a dad who ranched and a mom who majored in biology and taught high school math -- questions were encouraged. 

He had a great science teacher that sparked his interest in the subject, he said, and science provided fertile ground for the curious.

“The cool thing about science is as you study things happening around us, there are so many questions raised,” he said. “Kids are naturally curious.”

He decided to study education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in part because he'd tutored and coached younger students in high school. But it wasn’t until his first practicum at Lincoln High that he realized education was truly where he wanted to be.

“I loved it,” he said.

A decade ago — after he’d earned his degree in education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and spent two years teaching science at Southeast High School — he came back.

He’s spent the last 10 years teaching honors physical science and physics in the traditional classroom and for the International Baccalaureate program. On Tuesday found himself on the Lincoln High stage while his colleagues gave him a standing ovation.

He had Lincoln High chemistry teacher Sean Putnam, who he'd studied under during that first practicum years earlier, to thank for that.

Putnam nominated him for the Travis Berry Outstanding Lincoln High Educator Award created last year by Berry, who taught middle school in Arizona and wanted to find a way to support the work done by teachers at the high school where he graduated half a century earlier.

For the second award, Berry increased the amount by $1,000 and added $500 that will go to the teacher’s department. The $6,000 given to Smith represents one of the largest awards in the district.

Smith was one of 25 teachers nominated, and was selected by a committee -- comprised of Berry, staff and students -- that found Putnam's words compelling.

He called Smith one of the most professional, personal and proficient teachers he’s encountered in his 30 years in the profession, an excellent mentor and “eternally optimistic” about children’s potential.

As a teacher, Smith said, he tries to help kids ask good questions, the kind that arise in the science field.

“It’s a great avenue to help kids with critical thinking and problem-solving,” he said.

He coached basketball at Southeast and for about seven years at Lincoln High. When that ended he got another gig: training IB teachers around the country.

But he loves the classroom, where the exuberance surrounding education is hard to replicate.

“Kids are awesome. They bring great energy, great hope (to the classroom),” he said. “Every day, every period is different.”

He's passionate about helping kids ask good questions -- then work their way through the process to find an answer.

“Some people perceive (science) as difficult,” he said. “When a kid perceives it as difficult and comes out on the other side, it’s very powerful.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or

On Twitter @LJSreist.


Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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