In April, Jeff Charbonneau, a chemistry, physics, and engineering teacher at Zillah High School in Zillah, Washington, was formally recognized by President Obama as the 2013 Teacher of the Year in a special ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House.
A 12-year teaching veteran, Charbonneau is a National Board certified teacher, co-president of the Zillah Education Association, and the recipient of numerous awards for his commitment to education. Charbonneau also founded and directs the Zillah High School Robotics Challenge, which he established after collecting over $25,000 in grants and donations from local businesses. Charbonneau has opened up the program to schools throughout Washington State, involving almost 2,000 students across 75 school districts in the last school year.
On June 19, Charbonneau sat down with National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel to answer questions about his own teaching experiences, practices, and the future of public education.
Van Roekel: How have you evolved into the teacher that you are today?
Charbonneau: I’ve shifted from more of a focus on grades to learning, because that’s what it should really be about. I want to know that my students understand the material before they leave my classroom, not that they have ‘x’ number of points in my grade book. Where I teach and where I work is a paradise to me. It’s a place that I want to be, and that’s what I want my classroom to be. I want it to be a place where students know when they enter it that I care about them, and that everyone else in that room cares too.
You say everyday to your students, “Welcome back to another day in paradise.” How do you translate that greeting into practice in the classroom?
When I say that, it’s a recognition to the students that we’re in an air conditioned facility, that you’re sitting in a chair, that you’ve got food in your belly, that you’ve got people around you that support you. Shouldn’t you be excited about that? Shouldn’t you be ready to invest your time to continue making that paradise better? I try to convince my students of their own abilities, of their own expectations, and then use that to the fullest.
We talk here at NEA a lot about leading the profession. It’s very important about how we describe this concept to new teachers. When you talk to students in college who are preparing to be teachers about leading the profession, what will you tell them?
The number one thing, above all else, is that relationships come first. It’s not about content, it’s not about test scores, it’s about developing a relationship with the students first. If you know your students and understand their backgrounds, then you can make tremendous gains later. Oddly enough, when you put student relationships first, the content goes through the roof. So if we can keep our focus on students first—their needs, their responsibilities—then the rest kind of takes care of itself.
We also need to treat teachers like individuals, with their own needs and backgrounds and abilities. A classroom really is a microcosm of a community, and I know what works in my classroom. I know that if I start off with a positive statement to my students, if I value them and show them that I respect them, that they’re going to do an awful lot for me. Shouldn’t we be doing the same thing with the education system in the United States, where we recognize how amazing teachers and public education really are? Where we talk about the successes and celebrate that first? And then say, “Okay, now we have some more work to do.” I’ll tell you what—American education is at a great place, in my mind. We’re doing some incredible things compared to where we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago. I recognize and admit that we’ve got a long ways to go—but we’ve also come a long way in the process.
As you prepare for this upcoming year, how would you describe the message that you want to deliver to schools?
I think the main message is, let’s treat education like the classroom. Let’s celebrate the successes that are happening first, and then work on improvement. You know, the best way to motivate somebody is to talk about what they’re doing right first. I teach quantum mechanics. When I tell students that we’re going to start the quantum mechanics chapter—instant groans. When you present something that going to be difficult, you don’t start of saying, “well if you don’t understand this, then I’m going to make you do it over and over and over again until you get it right.” It’s a very negative approach, and it doesn’t work in the classroom. So instead, I start off working with the students to help them understand. Let’s take that same approach in education. American education takes students of all abilities and backgrounds, and trains them to be successful no matter the circumstances. That’s an absolutely beautiful message. Let’s start with that, and then we’ll talk about some of the speed bumps on the way to paradise.