Since being named 2013 National Teacher of the Year, Jeff Charbonneau has seen the inside of an airplane just about as much in a few short months as he’s seen in his entire life. The high school science teacher from tiny Zillah High School in central Washington has traveled the nation and is about to travel the world (to China and Japan this fall) to teach and learn.
While taking a break from classroom teaching this year at Zillah High, Charbonneau has been energized by his discussions with the many innovative, inspiring educators he has met in his travels.
“One of the best things about being National Teacher of the Year is I’ve gained a lot of hope for education in our country, hope in our teachers and hope in our future,” he said.
Charbonneau, 34, teaches physics, chemistry and engineering at Zillah High School. He believes strongly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, the latter of which Washington state is about to adopt. He agreed to lend his name to Ready Washington’s “Real Learning for Real Life” campaign to help bring awareness and understanding of college- and career-ready learning standards.
A 12-year teacher at his alma mater, Charbonneau said the increased rigor and learning expectations in Common Core matches up with his early teaching revelation that students must be challenged.
“When I started teaching, I taught very traditional high school chemistry and physics, and I realized something very early on, my students were bored,” he said. “How many times do you need to learn about protons, neutrons and elections? Let’s take it to the next level and I decided to make my courses more difficult, and two things happened: 1), student interest and enrollment went way up, and 2), discipline almost completely disappeared.
“The more students got pushed, the more they wanted to perform. By raising expectations, you increase awareness, involvement, and the next thing you know, your students start surprising you with how much they can achieve.”
Charbonneau said he gets asked about Common Core quite often, whether it’s in Zillah or across the United States. And, there is confusion about what Common Core is and what it does. He takes a simple approach to explaining the K-12 learning standards voluntarily adopted by 46 states.
“I think the one thing to remember about Common Core is that Common Core is about a standard,” he said. “It’s about where we want students to be at the end of a year or at the end of class. It’s not about how to get there, it’s about where they need to be. It allows freedom for teachers to determine what that path is, to make their instruction personalized to their students, to continue some of those projects they have been doing, as long as students get to the same place. That’s what the Common Core is about. … It’s not about how to teach, but where students should be by the time the teaching is done.”
And that discussion, especially in Washington, usually leads to local control. Does Common Core take away local control for districts, schools and teachers?
“I teach in a very small, agricultural community, and I am very much for local control,” Charbonneau said. “What we’re doing in Zillah is very different than what needs to be done in Seattle Public Schools or Spokane or even across the way in Toppenish. What we do in each school is individualized. It’s individual to the needs of our community and to the needs of our students, and I want to make sure it stays that way.
“But at the same time, I want to make sure that when my students graduate from Zillah that they are just as prepared as those students coming from Spokane, Toppenish and Seattle, and Boston, Mass. I want to make sure we are as prepared across the United States – equally – as best we can. That’s what it’s about.”
A concern for parents is how well their children will perform in school as standards and expectations are increased. Test scores in other states have been much lower than the scores on state basic skills exams that parents and the public have become used to. But, asking about tests is the wrong approach, Charbonneau said.
“Any time you talk about testing, you bring up questions like, how hard should tests be? That’s the wrong question to ask. The question to ask is what should the standard be? What should our students be able to do and know?” he said. “If we ask that question first and build appropriate assessments for that, then we’re going to be in a good place.
“Now for some of us, that means the scores aren’t going to come back as high as we want them to be. What we have to grapple with as a society is what we do with that information when those scores come back. I’m a teacher. Testing is kind of a thing I do. Teachers have been doing that for a long time. We use those tests to improve instruction and to improve the outcomes for our students, so if we can do that in the coming years, we’ll be in a great place.”