2023 Teacher of the Year Zach Beam on How He Stayed Positive During the Pandemic

Newcastle High School science teacher details his surprise entry into education and how to avoid burnout

By Jacob Gardenswartz

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Growing up in Texas and South Dakota, Zach Beam, 34, never wanted to be a teacher. In fact, he initially pursued an engineering degree when he left home for Black Hills State University.

But in a conversation with the Wyoming Truth shortly after he was named 2023 Wyoming Teacher of the Year, Beam’s passion for education was clear. Today, he teaches physical science, physics and advanced chemistry at Newcastle High School and was chosen among a pool of nearly 50 Wyoming teachers who won the top teaching award in their districts this year.

“Zach has the ability to bring the excitement of learning to his students with innovation and explanation,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder said in a statement announcing Beam’s award. “What he is doing in the area of STEM education – and what he plans to do next fall – just goes to show that he is all-in with letting his students grasp these far-reaching concepts in a way that is really, really fun and exciting.”

The Wyoming Truth spoke with Beam about how he got into teaching, his impression of current issues facing Wyoming schools and his advice for aspiring teachers. What follows are excerpts from the interview.

Zach Beam, who grew up in Texas, Montana and South Dakota before moving to Wyoming, said he’s “very honored and surprised” to be named 2023 Wyoming Teacher of the Year. (Courtesy photo from the Wyoming Department of Education)

When did you first know that you wanted to be a teacher?

Beam: I had a pretty unique experience as a senior in high school. Like many seniors, I thought I would take a study hall that would allow me to do my homework at school. My principal came to me and said, “Hey, you’ve taken all these math classes, and you’re not taking . . . anything this year” — I’d taken all the upper-level classes that my high school offered and they were lacking a middle school advanced math teacher — “Would you be willing to tutor?” I ended up teaching the course for the year, under the guidance of another teacher.

So I taught these kids algebra. And that didn’t quite sink in until I’d already gone through a year of college and then tried to go into the workforce, but, you know, reflecting back and I was able to finally realize that [teaching] was something that I really enjoyed. I never missed a day, so that I could teach those kids. And then as soon as I started into the teaching program at Black Hills State University, I never looked back.

What does it mean to you to be selected as district and state teacher of the year?

Beam: Being named district teacher of the year, it meant a lot. I put a lot of time and effort into my classes, into my students. And I don’t really sit back and think, “Oh, I’m doing a great job.” But I really try to reflect and do better each year. And so when my principal approached me with that, I was honored. And then, very, very honored and surprised to be also selected the Wyoming Teacher of the Year after going through that application process.

What was your experience teaching throughout the pandemic?

Beam: It was a tough year-and-a-half. Wrapping up [the 2019-20] school year online, I felt comfortable doing that because I feel comfortable with technology and working virtually. But it wasn’t easy to engage the students, and I wasn’t able to provide the education that I’m used to providing, because I couldn’t see the students’ responses, I couldn’t see how they were doing.

But I tried to remember what we’re trying to accomplish here at the school, and what we’re trying to provide for students, to try and keep that in focus the whole time.

Do you feel like there’s been a change either in how you approach the profession or how your students respond to school as a result of what took place over the last few years?

Beam: I teach all the freshmen that come through my school. And so this year’s group of freshmen is different than last year’s and different than the year before. But I try to meet students where they are anyway. So if I’ve got a student that’s really never understood, say atoms, I’m going to try to meet that student at that point, and try to pull them forward to get them caught up with everybody else.

I do know talking with the students, they didn’t like being online. Some of them did, some of them did really, really well, because they liked a very deliberate structure that we had to provide. But for others, a big chunk of high school is that social aspect, and they missed it.

2023 Wyoming Teacher of the Year Zach Beam was joined by State Superintendent Brian Schroeder; his father Brian; his wife Crystal; Weston County School District #1 Superintendent Brad LaCroix; and Newcastle High School Principal Bryce Hoffman for a surprise ceremony announcing the award. (Courtesy photo by Robin Grandpre)

Have you been impacted by the growing teacher shortage across the state? How should policymakers respond?

Beam: Yeah, I do know that that is a problem. I’ve heard multiple years now where we’re just simply not graduating math teachers. And I’m not certain why that is, if we’re finding more people who are math oriented going into the engineering field or looking into other things.

As far as teacher burnout, I have talked to teachers that have some frustration. I think the biggest thing is, we’ve got to really remember we’re all humans, right, and we’ve got to support each other. And hopefully, our administration can support us.

You know, with all the frustrations over the last few years, at the end of the day, I love science. I talked to a student just the other day that I never actually realized liked my class, but he told me “Yours was my favorite class out of all my classes.” And I didn’t expect that. Those little things I think help me stay focused on why I became a teacher, and why I continue to be a happy teacher in my classroom.

Is there a teacher who had a particularly strong impact on you when you were a kid?

Beam: I was very fortunate. I had lots of teachers who, even if I was naughty in class, would take me aside and work with me. But I had a particular teacher when I was in grade school that I’ll never forget. Her name was Mrs. Palagi. And at the time, my mom was going through some health things. And she was very aware of it. And she didn’t treat me any different because of it. But she opened the idea like, there is somebody else who is willing to talk to you, if you don’t know how to deal with your emotions today. Knowing that there are people in school that provide that, something absolutely outside of what she was hired for, she stepped up when I needed extra help. And I will forever be grateful for that.

What is your message to future teachers about why they might pursue this difficult profession?

Beam: I think my message to anybody that would be considering going into teaching is to really love the subject that you go into, so that you’re excited about teaching it. I get excited about learning new science, and I get excited about learning new STEM topics that I can pitch into my science classes. I really, really enjoy chemistry, and I really, really enjoy physics. And I really enjoy engineering.

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