Q&A: National Teacher of the Year speaks in Columbus

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 11, 2014 

Since the White House ceremony in which he was announced as the 2013 National Teacher of the Year 11 months ago, Jeff Charbonneau has done more than 100 speaking engagements, compiling about 260,000 frequent flier miles.

Tuesday, he was in Columbus for several events hosted by Columbus State University, including the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation annual breakfast honoring the Teacher of the Year nominees in the Muscogee County School District.

Charbonneau, 36, has been teaching chemistry, physics and engineering for his entire 13-year career at Zillah (Wash.) High School. He teaches at such a rigorous level, his students can earn as many as 24 college credits from neighboring institutions of higher learning. He also raised more than $25,000 to support the robotics program he created at his school.

After his speech in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, Charbonneau sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer for an interview. This transcript is edited for brevity and clarity.

What's the most significant aspect of public education that is working well but the public might not realize?

"Many of the things we're doing right people take for granted. We have students who know more now than graduates from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. They know more and can do more. That should be celebrated. Some of the test scores on the international rankings, if you break them out by socioeconomic status, we're actually doing quite well. We educate more of our students than most other countries do, and we're doing it at a much higher level. We still lead the world in copyrights. We still lead the world in patents. We still lead the world in innovation. And that's something I think is a real measurement of economic vitality. So sometimes I think we're always looking for what's going wrong and not spending enough time focusing on what's going right. The teachers in this room, the real challenge I posed to them today, is to spread that message. Teachers are supposed to be the humble servant, the quiet humble servant and put all the focus on the kids. We forget sometimes to celebrate the things that we're doing."

With your national platform, what policy change do you want to advocate?

"I think sometimes with education policy, sometimes the best policy is no new policy or even fewer policies. (Laughs.) So I don't know that I want to necessarily put this into law, but wouldn't it be great if our focus became celebration? By that I mean mimic the classroom. When a student walks into my classroom, the first thing I do is look for what's right in that student. I lift them up. I show them what they did right -- before I look for what's going wrong. That way, they have the confidence and the energy to go back and improve. We need to do that for teachers, celebrating teachers for the things they're doing right in the classroom, followed up with the areas that they need to improve upon. But so often, our policy makers and other groups are looking at only ways to improve, and they forget to look at the success part first."

Part of that problem is this concept of accountability. Some think we've overdone it. Others think we haven't done it enough or in the right way. What is your ideal accountability system for public education?

"Teachers want to be held accountable, first and foremost. We are not hiding from it. Administrators want to be held accountable too. But we're teaching kids, and the best answer in education for kids is 'It depends.' Circumstances matter. So when we talk about accountability, you have to have accountability with circumstances that matter. Does that mean using test scores? A little. Does that mean using multiple ranges of evaluation? A little. But you have to take into consideration where the kid was when they started, the situation they were in during the school year, then go from there -- which means you're not going to have a numbers-based system. There has to be that human influence in it too. There has to be some judgment calls made by the administration."

How would you standardize such a system?

"The problem is that we are literally talking about something I believe you can't standardize. Our standardized tests can help paint the overall picture, but they need to be part of it and not the whole picture."

How do you do that on a district, state and national level?

"You trust the people you put in those positions."

Then you wouldn't have a standardized accountability system?

"I think you can use one to help develop that picture. I equate it to my classroom. Every class I teach counts for college credit. If I only counted the final at the end of the semester, I'm pretty sure the parents would have me in front of the school board for inappropriate grading. If I never gave a test, I wouldn't be able to count my classes for college credit. So testing is part of the solution, but it's only part of it."

Why are you a teacher?

"When I first went to university, I majored in pre-med. I was in the honors college and I signed up with the local community hospital to be a volunteer in the emergency room. Basically, my job was that if something came out of a human body, I was supposed to clean it up. I also knew that I needed more community service hours than that. Our dean came to us and needed somebody to tutor five students in biology. So I signed up to do that, very selfishly, for community service hours to get into medical school. The problem was, over the course of about six months, I started thinking more about my tutoring sessions than about my own studies. I suddenly realized I was hooked on teaching the more I was spending time with kids. Teaching is really addictive. Once you see a student have success, you want to see more of that. That's why I teach. … It's watching students see new worlds of possibility. When you talk in chemistry about the atomic world, and it suddenly clicks in the students' minds and they see the whole planet differently, that's why I teach. But more basic than that, I've got two kids. My daughter's 4. I'm not worried about her education. I'm the first in my family to graduate from college. My wife is a college graduate. We read to our kids every night. I take books with me on the road so I can read to them over Skype. But what I am worried about is that somebody is going to fall in love with my daughter someday and marry her. And I don't get to choose who that is, so I've got to make sure that all kids are educated. So I teach for the next generation. I know that seems very pie-in-the-sky, but that's really what it's about."

How do we attract more people like you to teaching?

"We need to start talking more positively about the profession. When I was a kid, I remember commercials about teaching: 'Change the world - teach!' We need to do more of that. Right now, the messages kids are hearing about teaching are not good. I talk to so many pre-service teachers, kids who are in college, and they ask about whether they should go into teaching with all this negativity. … So we have to change that message."

How do we retain more teachers?

"By celebrating their successes. Everybody wants to be wanted at our core, and teachers right now don't feel very wanted by a very big population. So the more we can make teachers feel respected and wanted, the more they not only will stay but actually improve. You see, I get the most improvement out of my kids when I believe in them. When I stop believing in them, they don't improve anymore because they feel that, and I think that's what we're doing to our teachers a little bit."

You mentioned reading to your kids, what's one book you would recommend parents read to their children?

"Boy, there are so many, but with the new focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, especially girls, there's 'Iggy Peck, Architect.' It's a read-to elementary school book. It really encourages the idea of building, of construction, the idea that failure is OK, that failure is part of the process. Sometimes when you look at something as a failure, it's really not; it's just a step on the way to success."

How do we get more students excited about STEM subjects?

"It's really simple: Kids need to do more stuff. It really boils down to that. They need to do more hands-on activities, more content that is rigorous. When I started teaching chemistry, I taught at a very basic high school level, and my kids were bored. There are two reasons for boredom: It could be because it's above them, so I need to make it easier; or it's too easy, and I need to lift it up. So I made my classes harder, and what's amazing is that the harder I made my classes the more kids signed up. They wanted to have that challenge. I've actually made them so difficult, they now count for college credit."

So you found a way to raise the level in your classroom without needing the money to pay for Advanced Placement courses?

"In my classroom, I don't let kids use the words 'I can't.' I need to show them I'm not going to use those words either. When you see those opportunities, you've just go to shoot for them for your kids."

What's one way parents can immediately help their children learn?

"Take the time to read to them -- 20, 30 minutes a night. It makes a profound difference in the way the kids learn, in the way they interact with you as parents. And you need to continue that past elementary school into middle and high school. Maybe the parent isn't reading to their kid anymore, but the reading time still exists. Parents, by the time the kids are in high school, that means you're reading a book and they're reading a book at the same time. You have family reading time."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.

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