National Teacher of the Year: Jeff Charbonneau

Name: Jeff Charbonneau

Title: 2013 National Teacher of the Year; science teacher at Zillah High School in Zillah, Wash.

What classes do you teach?
I teach chemistry, physics, engineering, and architecture. I run an after-school science club focused on robotics, rocketry, and outdoor science (hiking and backpacking). I am also the assistant drama director, yearbook advisor, and a class advisor.

What do you love about teaching science?
I love being there at the moment of discovery and watching as a student understands a new piece of how the world operates. That is a truly special moment.When students walk through my door, I seek the positive in them first.

What is the engineering design process?
I see the engineering design process as something that everyone can and should apply to their everyday lives. The basics of the design process can be broken down to asking some key questions about the part or scenario: What is working well? What needs to be improved? How can we improve it? And finally, did our improvements work, or do they need refinement? In essence, that is what I teach my students to do, and that is how I run my classroom. I am constantly praising my students for what they have done correctly, while gently showing them areas of need. Together, we then work out our course of action to address that need. I am constantly modifying and adapting my lesson plans to meet the individual needs of my students by following the design process.

How does the engineering design process impact the way you teach?
I stress that the design process is in everything that we do. While I may teach the design process specifically in engineering, it’s also used in my yearbook club. It includes everything from establishing the yearbook’s design constraints to creating layouts and making revisions. The engineering design process is a fundamental part of all subjects.

How do you help all students succeed in STEM subjects?
Anyone can be successful in STEM — or any field, for that matter. Anyone. I firmly believe that all individuals can and will be successful if given the opportunity, the support, and the confidence they need. I teach students from all backgrounds and all abilities. Often, I find that my best students are ones whose academic histories would have suggested otherwise. Why do these students succeed in my classroom? The answer is simple. When students walk through my door, I seek the positive in them first. I place my students as my absolute first priority. Content comes second. By learning first about my students — their history, culture, current ability, future goals, activities, etc. — I can modify my instruction so that they can see the relevance of what they are learning in class to the things that matter to them in their lives. Once that connection is made, it is the students that drive the instruction. They push me to show them more, and then I step to the side and allow them to do the work. Ironically, by placing positive student relationships before content in my priorities, we study subjects to a much deeper level. Content rises when relationships come first.

How do you recharge after a long day?
I love designing things, and I love playing with my kids, so I combine it. My seven-year-old son and I have designed track adapters for the different types of train tracks he has so that wooden tracks can link with plastic, and then we print them out on a 3-D printer so that he can use them in real life. My four-year-old daughter and I are working on designing a new dollhouse for her dolls. To me, designing, creating, and imagining should never cease. Even after a long day, it’s still all I want to do.

In six words, what advice do you have for future teachers?
Never limit yourself or your students.