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National Teacher of the Year Reflects on Success

A week-long trip to Washington, D.C., a meeting with the President of the United States, interviews with countless reporters, including a visit to CBS This Morning. This was definitely not the life that Jeff Charbonneau expected, but it’s the life he’s entered as the 2013 National Teacher of the Year, an honor bestowed upon him by the Council of Chief State School Officers and President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House this week.

Charbonneau is a high school chemistry, physics, and Project Lead The Way (PLTW) engineering teacher at Zillah High School in Zillah, Wash., a city of approximately 3,000 that sits east of Mt. Rainer, about 20 miles from Yakima. Charbonneau began teaching 12 years ago and started teaching PLTW’s Introduction to Engineering Design (IED) and Civil Engineering and Architecture (CEA) three years ago.

Reached by phone in Washington, D.C., Wednesday morning, Charbonneau said he is still getting used to his new title. “It’s been an absolutely wild ride,” he said, referring to his meetings with the President, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Dr. Jill Biden.

“This is so much more than a person could ask for,” he says. “I’m doing the same thing that all the rest of the teachers across the nation are doing—trying to improve instruction and teach courses that are rigorous.”

But the panel of 15 who selected Charbonneau from the other finalists saw something different in him, and President Obama acknowledged it while presenting him with the award during a Rose Garden ceremony Tuesday—Charbonneau has succeeded in connecting with students and showing them that engineering and science are, indeed, things they can do. Charbonneau increased enrollment in his science classes at the same time he continued making them more challenging and rigorous, even convincing students who had written off math and science to give the subjects another shot.

“My secret to success is that I teach as a good engineer or a good scientist would. Good engineers look at a mechanical part and see it for its positive qualities first. What’s functionally correct, what works well? How can we improve? I look for positives in my students and continue to build on those.”

Charbonneau’s journey toward being named the 2013 Teacher of the Year took him through the district, regional, and state Teacher of the Year awards. The 54 State Teachers of the Year (one from each state, U.S. territory, and the Department of Defense) then submitted written applications, letters of recommendation, and letters from students. Four finalists were flown to D.C. in early March for a series of interviews.

“I have to thank Project Lead The Way,” Charbonneau added. “The work I’ve done with the engineering and architecture courses, it’s been really exciting to teach the courses and see the impact they’ve had on the kids. Before PLTW, there was no engineering curriculum at all. It’s given the students a lot—avenues to continue to challenge themselves, earn college credit, and ways to express themselves.”

Personally, Charbonneau says PLTW’s professional development program has been invigorating. “The opportunity to spend two weeks with like-minded educators and phenomenal facilitators gets you excited about education again. Seeing the things you can share with students and how you can take them through these courses is really refreshing.”

Charbonneau will spend the next year as an ambassador for teachers, spreading a message to current and future teachers that they have unlimited potential to help students achieve great things. But when he’s not traveling or speaking, he’ll be doing what he calls the “greatest job in the world.”

“Awards are not why we teach. I was never trying to make it this far. I was only trying to make it to the next day, to make the next day better for kids. That’s what teaching is about. The awards, going to the White House—they’re a nice perk. But it’s about showing students the path toward discovery and letting them navigate their own way there. When I’m able to watch off to the sidelines and see that ‘ah ha’ moment or when it clicks, that’s what it’s all about. That’s the moment teachers live for.”

Read more on Jeff Charbonneau, the 2013 National Teacher of the Year, in Education Week and theWashington Post. Click here to watch his interview on CBS This Morning.