Small-town teacher a finalist for high-profile national honor
A teacher from Zillah High School in Eastern Washington will learn Monday morning whether he is the nation’s new Teacher of the Year.
Seattle Times education reporter
An Eastern Washington science teacher known for tough classes that draw lots of students will learn Monday whether he has won the national Teacher of the Year competition.
Jeff Charbonneau, in his 12th year working at a small, rural high school in the Yakima Valley, is one of four finalists for the prestigious post. If he is selected, he will be the first Washington teacher to hold the honor since 2007, and will spend a year traveling as an ambassador for the teaching profession.
The winner will be announced between 5 and 6 a.m. Seattle time on the “CBS This Morning” television show in New York City. The other three finalists are an English teacher from Maryland, a special-education teacher from Florida and a music teacher from New Hampshire.
Charbonneau started teaching in Zillah in 2001, in the same high school he attended as a teenager. He teaches chemistry, physics, engineering and architecture, and has worked with several colleges so that students in his classes can earn up to a quarter’s worth of college science credits.
Many students like that option. This year, Charbonneau said, about 60 percent of Zillah High’s juniors are taking chemistry, and one-third of seniors are in physics classes.
Early in his career, Charbonneau said, he had some trouble managing student behavior. He figured students might have just been bored, so he made his classes harder. It worked.
His main goal, he said, is not to train future scientists and engineers, but to convince students they are smart enough to tackle quantum mechanics — or whatever field they choose. Science is just a vehicle to do that, he said.
In addition to his classes, Charbonneau runs a statewide robotics competition that, over the past four years, has drawn students from 43 different school districts. He serves as Zillah High’s yearbook adviser, runs a backpacking and hiking club, and helps with drama productions. He also is co-president of Zillah’s teachers union.
He almost always makes it home in time for dinner, but often returns to school after his young children go to bed, and sometimes stays so long that police officers tap on his classroom window, wondering why someone is in the school so late.
Charbonneau, 35, didn’t intend to return to his alma mater to teach, but when he finished college, the school had an open science position and he applied. He works alongside many of the same teachers he had as a teenager — and says it took years for him to address them by their first names. He is one of three science teachers at the 400-student school.
As Washington state’s teacher of the year, Charbonneau says his mission has been to convince the public that U.S. schools are doing much better than many think.
“We’ve focused so much on what’s wrong that we do not recognize what’s right — and that’s really a disservice.”
He understands that student test scores should be higher, but if they were the be-all/ end-all, he said, we would have seen deterioration in the nation’s standing when it comes to innovation and invention, and he doesn’t see evidence of that.
He wishes the public would treat education like good teachers treat their students — not battering them about their weaknesses, but by identifying their strengths first, then working on what needs to improve.
At the beginning of every class, Charbonneau welcomes his students by saying, “Welcome to another day in paradise.”
“I really do believe that,” he says.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LShawST