School & District Management

National Teacher of the Year Noted for Robotics, Resourcefulness

By Liana Loewus — April 23, 2013 4 min read
With U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan looking on, President Barack Obama presents the 2013 National Teacher of the Year award to Zillah, Wash., science teacher Jeff Charbonneau.

On Tuesday afternoon, President Barack Obama presented Jeffrey Charbonneau of Zillah, Wash., with the 63rd National Teacher of the Year award in a cozy Rose Garden ceremony at the White House. The 12-year veteran science teacher was selected from among the 2013 state teachers of the year by a panel of representatives from 15 education organizations.

Charbonneau, a National Board-certified teacher, currently teaches physics, chemistry, and engineering at his alma mater, the 410-student Zillah High School, located in rural Yakima County. As President Obama explained in his speech, Charbonneau revamped the “lagging” science curriculum at the school—introducing more difficult and even college-level courses—because he “wanted to convince kids that something like quantum mechanics wasn’t something to run away from, but something to dive into.”

Charbonneau’s impressive résumé includes a multitude of leadership roles, such as co-president of the Zillah Education Association; book reviewer for the National Science Teachers Association; founder of a hiking, backpacking, and ecology group for students; yearbook advisor; assistant drama director; and member of the Zillah school district’s improvement team. In an interview, Charbonneau said he leads student activities “as a way to ensure that my high school students get absolutely the best high school experience they can.” Every year, he said, he feels compelled to make certain “this year is their year.”

In addition to teaching advanced 9-12th grade science classes, Charbonneau is an adjunct faculty member at three higher-education institutions—Yakima Valley Community College, Central Washington University, and Eastern Washington University—where his high school students can earn credits by taking his classes. Further, he’s an online instructor for teacher-certification courses and a cohort facilitator for National Board- certification candidates.

In another notable achievement, Charbonneau founded the Zillah Robot Challenge, a robot-building competition open to all Washington students. He’s raised more than $25,000 in grants and donations for robot kits, which students borrow for several weeks as they learn to build, test, and modify their robots. “It’s not about winning the competition, it’s about being part of the competition,” he said in an interview.

Charbonneau also brings in keynote speakers for the Challenge events to put robotics into a real-world context for students. He said that the speakers have included members of the Washington State Patrol’s bomb squad unit, representatives of a nuclear facility, and medical professionals who make new limbs for amputees. Since 2008, more than 1,000 students from 70 middle and high schools around the state have participated in the twice-yearly robotics competitions.

‘Another Day in Paradise’

An unabashed optimist, Charbonneau emphasizes the need to focus on what’s possible and positive in education. According to his Teacher of the Year application, while his school was facing budget restrictions, “rather than lament that fact,” Charbonneau sought grant money—and procured enough to outfit his classroom with 28 computers, a 3-D printer, and a laser engraver.

In an interview after the ceremony, he described how when students approach him with a problem, he will first “lift them up and tell them what they did right.” He said it’s important to do the same in discussing education. “There’s so much going right in education, and we need to celebrate that. Fundamentally speaking, we’re a nation of succeeding schools.” He pointed to after-school programming and extended-learning time as evidence that students in the United States have unique opportunities to be successful.

Charbonneau’s tagline of sorts, which he says he opens every class with, reflects his upbeat attitude as well: “Welcome back to another day in paradise,” he tells students. Paradise, he wrote in his application, “removes the words ‘can’t,’ ‘too hard,’ and ‘impossible’ from our vocabulary. … Great teachers create a paradise not only within their own classroom, but also in their school and greater community.”

Praise for Teachers

During the ceremony, President Obama took a moment to honor the six educators who were killed during the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., four months ago. He described these educators as demonstrating “the true depths of a teacher’s commitment.”

He also praised teachers “in classrooms across America who are teaching things like character, compassion, resilience, and imagination. ... They’re passionate about helping our children realize the best versions of themselves so that our country can become the best version of itself.” In addressing teachers, including the state teachers of the year standing behind him, he said, “Thanks for helping our kids dream big.”

The president also touted his budget initiative to prepare 100,000 additional science and math teachers over the next decade. “And excellent teachers like Jeff could make up part of a ‘master teachers corps’—a network of outstanding educators who serve as leaders and mentors for their colleagues in these particular subject areas,” he said.

Obama also praised U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s efforts to create a “new blueprint for teaching in the 21st century, listening to some of these outstanding teachers and educators and principals so that we can figure out what best practices are out there.”

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