By Erin Duffy / World-Herald staff writer
A career in teaching wasn’t always on the horizon for Daniel Lopez.
He entered college as a medical technology major considering a pathway in scientific research or even medicine.
But Lopez kept in touch with his high school counselor, who eventually convinced him that there was a growing need for teachers, especially Latino ones like Lopez.
Midway through his first semester at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he switched his major to education.
It’s a move that Lopez hasn’t regretted. As a dual-language science teacher at Marrs Middle School, he’s been able to combine his two interests.
His skills in the classroom and dedication to students haven’t gone unnoticed — he’s one of 15 Omaha Public Schools teachers honored with the 2016 Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award.
The award, presented each year since 1988, goes to 15 OPS nominees with at least two years of teaching experience. The award is named for an aunt of Warren Buffett who taught high school home economics in OPS for more than 35 years.
The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation sponsors the awards. Each winner receives an engraved medallion, $10,000 and $500 in McDonald’s gift certificates. Awardees, who are nominated by colleagues, students and parents, were recognized at a dinner Friday night.
Lopez got the call informing him that he was a winner April 2. He double-checked the names of the callers in case it was an April Fools’ joke.
“I was very surprised,” he said.
Lopez, 33, has taught at Marrs for his entire 11-year teaching career. He also coaches soccer at Marrs and for a club team, Nebraska Futbol Club. His dual-language classes are taught in a mixture of English and Spanish that requires him to quickly translate science curriculum — dependent variable becomes “manipulado dependiente.”
In class last week, he helped eighth-graders in the dual-language program build and test pressurized water rockets made from soda bottles, duct tape and bubble wrap. Students had to design the rockets so they’d cushion an egg inside and keep it from breaking during the rocket’s launch and crash landing.
“Everyone, make sure you’re observing carefully so you can make any changes to protect the egg better,” he instructed the class during the practice launch.
One student said Lopez could be strict about homework, but the results speak for themselves: Most kids in the class have good grades.
Lopez said he doesn’t apologize for having high expectations. Long before OPS tightened its academic eligibility rules, Lopez told his soccer players that they had to pass every class if they wanted to play.
“I’m very honest with my students,” he said. “Some of them think that I’m mean, but I tell them the real world doesn’t sugarcoat things for you.”
He tells a story about a seventh-grade girl who predicted that she’d get in trouble and have an ankle monitor by eighth grade. Lopez told her that he expected better of her and placed her in his eighth-grade honors science class. She rose to the occasion and came back to visit him this year after wrapping up her freshman year of high school with straight A’s.
“Seeing students, especially at the middle level where they’re still not set in their ways, helping them go on the right path so they can see success, that’s very rewarding to me as a teacher,” he said.
Lopez said his heritage — he was born in Mexico but grew up in Lexington, Nebraska — seems to help him connect with students and parents at Marrs, which has many Latino students.
“When I speak to them in Spanish, it’s things that they recognize right away from home, whether it’s correcting their behavior or congratulating them on something they did well on,” he said. “When I go into that parent talk, that parent language, it clicks right away.”
And the South Omaha community, in turn, has welcomed him. There’s typically a long line waiting outside his door during parent-teacher conferences, and parents of players on his soccer teams often invite him to cookouts or hand him a plate of home-cooked food.
One student wrote in a nominating letter for the teaching award: “Daniel Lopez was not only a great teacher in the classroom, but an excellent coach and mentor who cared for the growth of his students. ... He taught me, and countless others, the importance of determination, fortitude, patience and teamwork.”