Paul Solarz, M.S. ’02, is the kind of teacher you want your kid to have in school.

Solarz’s fifth-graders team up to solve Mystery Skype sessions with other kids around the world. They get two hours per week of “passion time,” learning how to learn by exploring personal interests. And as if his own ideas weren’t enough, he’s also constantly collaborating with other educators on his blog and Twitter.

Now, the Illinois State alum’s enormous passion for teaching has been met by an equally big honor. Solarz is a Top 50 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize—widely considered the Nobel Prize for teachers. The winner, who will be announced in March in Dubai, will get $1 million.

“All of these finalists are just outstanding leaders in their fields, and to be considered one of those 50 people is such an honor,” Solarz said. “No teacher works for money or power or credit. But it’s nice to be told that other people have acknowledged some of the things you’re doing.”

It’s hardly the first time Solarz has been recognized. Just last year, Solarz was named Illinois Computer Educator of the Year for his work at Westgate Elementary School in Arlington Heights. In fact, Solarz is one of many Illinois State education grads who have recently received statewide “top teacher” honors.

Solarz caught the teaching bug while in high school, when he served as a Cub Scout camp counselor. Instead of getting bogged down in content or learning objectives, Solarz turned “whatever it was I was teaching into something enjoyable for them.” Kids need to be interested in what they’re working on, he says.

Paul Solarz with a student

Solarz is finishing his first book called “Learn Like a Pirate,” to help other educators create student-led classrooms.

“It was a neat power that I thought I had,” he said.

Solarz got his bachelor’s degree at Winona State University in Minnesota and taught for one year before pursuing his master’s in curriculum and instruction at Illinois State. Solarz was part of an off-campus cohort of working educators who learned from Illinois State professors in Wheeling, near Chicago.

Solarz says his ISU education “opened my eyes” to some new research in the education field, and it showed him ways to improve his teaching and how he analyzed his own work. It also helped spark his interest in getting his National Board Certification—the gold standard for American educators.

“That made a huge difference in my life,” he said.

Teaching is not just an occupation for Solarz. It’s a hobby. He has 11,000 followers on Twitter and is finishing his first book called Learn Like a Pirate, to help other educators create student-led classrooms.

“It’s not just worksheets or showing a video anymore. It’s connecting with other classrooms overseas. It’s posting what you learned on a blog,” Solarz said. “We’re doing all these cool things nowadays that we weren’t always allowed to do before. It’s a different time.”

His advice for ISU education majors who will soon be teachers?

“When you get your first job, try to infect all of the other teachers with your passion and excitement,” Solarz said. “There’s gonna be a billion rules, but don’t lose who you are or who you want to be.”

The Top 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize will be announced in mid-February.

Ryan Denham can be reached at