Recently a first-year teacher who had questions about teaching— a lot of questions— approached me. He rattled off a string of frantic interrogations, showing his frustration with teaching, students, pacing and just about everything else related to education.

Recently a first-year teacher who had questions about teaching— a lot of questions— approached me. He rattled off a string of frantic interrogations, showing his frustration with teaching, students, pacing and just about everything else related to education.

One of his questions struck me hard. Incorrectly thinking I was an expert he inquired, “I don’t think I am cut out for this. I really wanted to be a teacher but now I am not so sure. I just can’t seem to figure it out—how should I teach?”

How should I teach? I thought for a brief moment and realized I didn’t know how to answer his question so I blurted out the most vague, most uninspiring, most generic answer ever. I told him, “Hang in there. You will figure out what works for you. Just stick it out, it will get better…”

Basically I told this perplexed, early career, always-wanted-to-teach educator that he was just going to have to figure it out on his own; that I, the supposedly award-winning expert had nothing to offer beyond a pat on the shoulder that likely felt more like a punch in the gut. I toiled over that conversation for a long time wondering what I would tell him if I ever met him again. And, after much lost sleep I finally realized what I should have said to that young teacher when I had the chance:

How should you teach? Teach. With. Fire!

Teach with a fire so bright that everything you do burns into your student’s souls. Teach with a fire so hot that students never forget the energy that blazed through your classroom. Teach with fire! That is how you should teach.

Teach with Fire!

I am a chemistry teacher so I take this statement quite literally on the first day of school. When students enter my room the lights go off and things start blowing up! I want them to look up from their seats and see the fire in my eyes as flames shoot from my hands. I want them to look up at me and think that I am just crazy enough to make this class something they look forward to each day. I want them to think, “This guy is on fire, and it is awesome!”

It doesn’t matter what you teach, and you don’t have to have real fire. When students show up in your class, show them your FIRE!

Teach with Passion  

I never intended to become a teacher; it just happened. My passions were in the sciences and that was where I was headed in college. However, a professor asked me to serve as a Teaching Assistant at a seminar and I reluctantly agreed. I never could have imagined the fire that being in front of a class would spark inside of me.

My passion for science has merged with my passion for teaching and in that merger, the lines between fun, work, family and hobbies blurred to the point that they have become indistinguishable. Because really, what is a passion anyway? It is something that consumes your time, your energy and your whole being. In addition, in that consumption, instead of being worn down, you are lifted up; you are energized! Recently a news crew was in my room and they kicked me out to interview my students about me. One of my seniors told them, “He absolutely loves chemistry and that is what makes him different,” and several others echoed her response. I chuckled when I watched their interviews on TV that night because I knew they had felt my passion: that they had seen my fire.

When you teach with passion, you teach with fire!

Teach with Compassion

Four years ago there was a young man stomping around outside my classroom and growling under his breath, visibly upset. I had never met him but soon realized he was a very exceptional special education student from the class down the hall, I will call him “TJ.” “TJ” finally told me that he was upset because he did not have a pencil and was going to be kicked out of class without one. Therefore, I took him into my room, gave him a pencil and at that moment, we changed each other’s lives.

“TJ” soon learned where my extra pencils were and still, four years later, comes in every morning either to show me he hasn’t lost yesterday’s pencil, or to grab a new one for today. He quickly learned where my gum stash was and helps himself to a stick every day. And, each day when he walks through my door, he smiles so big I fear his teeth may fall right out of his mouth. He greets me with the biggest “Good morning!” a young man can muster. He bugs all of my students, forcing them to say that I am the best teacher ever. He brings me joy. Moreover, all it has ever cost me is the price of a pencil and a stick of gum.

I made a deal with “TJ” that first year we met. I told him I would bring him a box of my favorite pencils and a case of my favorite gum to the graduation ceremony if he promised to graduate. In May 2015, at graduation, I gave “TJ” his last pencil and gum, but this time it cost me a whole box of pencils and a whole case of gum, and one great big hug followed by the biggest toothy smile you could ever imagine.

When you teach with compassion, you teach with fire!

Teach with purpose.

I have to admit, in my lesson preparation I often find myself thinking, “What will I have my students do today?” In a recent conversation with a colleague, I was reminded to stop thinking about what I want my students to do and start thinking about what I want my students to learn!

There is a difference, a big difference. I can vividly recall several professional development experiences where I sat there thinking, “Why are they wasting my time? I could be doing so much more with my time…” I wonder how many of my students have felt the exact same way in my class.

My students sit in “professional development experiences” all day long and my goal is to never waste their time. I have a mission to inspire and motivate my students to become creative, critical-thinkers, who love learning and are able to find a path in life that brings them joy; all in one hour a day. In order to do this, I must continually ask myself, “what is the purpose of this lesson and what do I want them to learn today?” With that, I build a lesson that sparks their interest, burns in their hearts, and fuels their fire to learn.

To teach with purpose is to teach with fire!

To anyone who has ever struggled and thought, “How should I teach?” I say, be an intense flame that spreads passion, compassion and purpose through your students. Show your love of teaching and always: Teach. With. Fire!

Craig Beals
Craig Beals is Montana’s 2015 State Teacher of the Year as selected by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Craig is a Chemistry and Biology teacher at Billings Senior High School in Billings, Montana. He also holds an Adjunct Instructor position with Miami University, Ohio, and leads field studies for graduate students in conservation hot spots around the world. He has National Board Certification and a Master’s of Zoology. The photo copyright of Craig Beals with hand on fire is held by the photographer Houston Harmon and may be used and reproduced by AdvancED for The Source as long as photographer’s name accompanies photo. The photographer retains copyright.