Teacher never stops learning

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Roger Spears taught seven different classes in seven different classrooms during his first job as a teacher in an inner-city middle school.

He carried his belongings and teaching materials from class to class in a box.

It was difficult to teach science in rooms without sinks, tables or even basic lab equipment, he said.

He's is making up for that now. It would take a small trailer to haul everything he has spread throughout his third-floor classroom at Moffat County High School.

The off-white paint is barely discernable among the posters of racecars, team pennants, family pictures and bumper stickers that adorn the walls. Among all the things are the Periodic Table of Elements, the classroom rules and a pencil sketch of Spears titled: "Indiana Spears and the Temple of Physics."

Disastrous first year

Models of molecular structures crafted by students and airplanes, made by Spears and his brother, dangle from the ceiling along with state flags and a small, stuffed space man. T-shirts are wrapped around some of the ceiling tiles. When Spears ran out of wall space for posters, he began hanging them on the ceiling.

Spears got lucky this summer. He used his classroom to teach a college-level class and didn't have to remove everything off the walls for a cleaning.

"You can't see them anyway," he said.

The effect is busy but not cluttered, and it gives much insight into the passions, personality and history of the decorator.

After what he considered a disastrous first year teaching, Spears said he seriously began to rethink his decision to leave his job at the YMCA to earn his teaching degree.

But, he wasn't quite ready to waste the time and money spent at the University of Colorado, he said.

He applied for several teaching jobs, including one at Moffat County High School. He was offered a position in Yuma.

"It was a good situation, a good learning experience," he said.

In his first year there, his students nominated him as Teacher of the Year. He left after four years and was later asked to return as a guest speaker at the high school's graduation ceremony.

He said the experience taught him about the positive influence a teacher can have on the lives of others.

Current events

Spears was hired at Moffat County High School in 1995, four years after he applied. He initially taught Earth science and then became the chemistry teacher.

"Science changes every day," he said. "There's always new research and new products."

He said there's more to his job than teaching science. He wants to impart a love of learning.

"I'm not a science person at all, but I really like this class because of him," senior Valery Billig said.

Spears uses current events to make science relevant to his students. On Friday, students talked about how carbon dioxide affects the body and determined at what levels it is fatal. The discussion followed a West Virginia mine explosion that killed 12 miners.

Lessons about hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis also make their way into his class when they occur.

"He's a lot of fun," senior Hannah Miller said. "He makes it interesting. Normally I would be so bored doing stuff like this. He's one of the main reasons I took this class again."

Teaching is a good way to keep learning, Spears said.

Life lessons

He said he takes every opportunity he can to continue learning.

"I tell my students, 'If you don't apply, then you already know the answer. If you apply, who knows what's going to happen?'" he said.

He takes his own advice.

Four years ago, he was accepted into a science and engineering symposium in Massachusetts.

Two years ago, he spent the summer in Boulder researching liquid crystals and carbon nanotubes, trying to learn whether it's possible to attach a carbon nanotube to medication, inject it into the body and direct it to a specific spot -- a tumor for example -- using a laser.

When NASA reopened its educator astronaut program, Spears was one of 27,000 teachers nominated to take part in the program. He and 8,000 other teachers followed through and filled out the 33-page application. He was among the final 200 candidates. The program didn't accept him because he is color blind, he said.

'Top secret'

He was asked, however, to be part of NASA's Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers, formed that year to help promote NASA and increase science, engineering and technology literacy.

"I got the rejection letter, and three months later, I was invited to Johnson Space Center," he said.

Since then, he has spent time each summer in the same training programs in which astronauts participate so that he can use the experience in his classroom.

"We're kind of taking the message out to people," he said.

There's plenty of evidence that he does so. From the NASA banner attached to the ceiling, to the picture of a shuttle launch on the wall, it's clear that Spears is interested in what exists beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Even the door of his office is evidence. Spears doesn't have the typical "keep out," or "please knock" signs. On his office door is a poster announcing "Area 51 -- Warning Restricted Area, Top Secret Research Facility."

Still learning

Now, he has the chance to spend a week in California as part of the Disney Teacher Awards.

A student nominated Spears for the award. But he doesn't know which student.

"I'd like to thank that person, but Disney won't tell me who it was," he said.

Again, he invested time filling out a lengthy application and will learn in April whether he's one of the 40 teachers selected to receive the Disney award. The honor comes with $10,000 and the chance to attend The Professional Development In----stitute in Orlando.

"It's sheer chemistry in the classroom with Roger Spears as the instructor," high school Principal Jane Krogman said. "(He) builds a powerful attraction for continued learning in the area of science."

Lately, Spears has been trying to cut back on what he does outside his job. He gave up his position as assistant coach after seven years.

The reason is clear when you look closely at the wall closest to his desk.

Pictured are his 5-year-old daughter and 7-month-old twins.

Even with them, the 44-year-old teacher said he's still learning.

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