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Alta Physics Teacher Named Canyons District’s Top Educator

May 22, 2015 08:36AM ● Published by Julie Slama

Alta High teacher Matt Leininger lies between beds of 1,400 nails during a demonstration of pressure. Bringing physics to life is part of the reason Leininger was named Canyons School District Teacher of the Year. Photo courtesy of Denise Ferguson

Sandwiched between two beds of nails, an Alta High physics teacher endures the smashing of a 100-pound cinder block on his chest just to demonstrate the concept of pressure to his students.

“All I feel is a push from the hammer blow, nothing sharp,” Matt Leininger said, before explaining the large surface of nails spreads out the total force being thrust upon him. 

He launches into the mathematical equation of pressure equaling force divided by area so students will fully understand this demonstration. It’s just one of several demonstrations, or hands-on experiences, in which students participate while taking his class, and one of several reasons why Leininger was named Canyons School District Teacher of the Year.

Leininger received the award April 28 at a Canyons Board of Education meeting. He was selected from 46 teachers who were nominated from every Canyons District school. He received a glass trophy, a $1,000 award from the Canyons Education Foundation and other items from community businesses.

“This has been overwhelming and caught me as a surprise because I love teaching and doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m very humbled and honored, and this award validates what I’ve put my heart and soul into and what I strive to become better with each inservice.”

Leininger didn’t pick teaching as his first career. 

“I wanted to be like my dad and be a mechanical engineer. I was a talented math student and started studying engineering at BYU (Brigham Young University). I worked with my dad one summer and learned that I didn’t like it at all. But I had helped my mom when she was teaching elementary school when we had different breaks or days off. So I gave that a try and started to volunteer at an elementary school near BYU. I mentored a Chinese boy, working with him to learn English, and I knew teaching was what I was meant to do,” he said.

Leininger said that his mother proved to be an invaluable role model.

“I had a great teacher. She inspired me. She loved her job and helped kids, getting them engaged in learning and inspired to want to learn more,” he said.

While earning his degrees in technical education at BYU and physics education at Western Governors University, he decided to teach in secondary schools.

“I remember my schooling and felt uncomfortable in middle and high schools. A lot of kids wonder who they are, who their friends are and struggle to become independent. It’s a tough transition for a few years, and I thought I could make a difference in students’ lives at this point,” he said.

Alta Principal Brian McGill said that Leininger does just that.

“He is just that type of teacher, that no matter the student that is in class, no matter their background, their demographic, he connects with all of his kids,” McGill said.

Leininger, who has been at Alta the past three of his 16 years teaching, admits not all of his students share his love of physics, but he tries to teach them that they use physics every day, whether they realize it or not, and engages them in memorable experiences.

“I have students in my class that don’t like physics, but they have said they love my class. I try to explain that physics is applied math and any decision they make comes through the logic of physics. When I teach, I see the students as my own children in their seats, needing praise and discipline. I treat them with respect, love and making sure they know I care about them. I teach them success isn’t an option. It is a result where everyone finds success,” said the father of four.

Leininger, who also helps with the afterschool robotics program and coaches swimming and tennis, points out that students learn about electronic waves with their cell phones or study friction when they turn a car’s wheels. Students learn about projectiles when they make and set off rockets and learn about alternative forms of energy when they study solar cars.

“Physics is something you experience every day, each day and it is a lot of fun,” he said.

Leininger and the other two finalists, Sandy Elementary’s Bethany Smith and Midvale Middle’s Kattie Dewald, learned they were finalists in early April. After being interviewed and observed teaching, the selection committee named Leininger as the top teacher for 2015. He still doesn’t know who initially nominated him.

Smith and Dewald each received a $500 check from the Canyons Education Foundation.        
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