A year and 300,000 frequent flyer miles ago, Jeff Charbonneau, a science and engineering teacher from the small town of Zillah in Eastern Washington, started his journey as the 2013 National Teacher of the Year.
His travels took him to 32 states as well as China and Japan. He gave roughly 175 speeches to crowds as big as 9,000 people and as few as 40. He’s met with future teachers as well as governors, state education chiefs, and members of Congress.
As he finishes up his term as the nation’s top teacher, we caught up with him between trips, to see what he’s been thinking and doing.
Q: What have you learned in the past year?
A: I’ve learned there is a lot more going right in education than makes it into the national media. I have seen STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in high schools that rival that of universities.
I was shocked at how much better it is than I had realized. In the beginning, I kind of felt that maybe we in the Yakima Valley were doing things way better than anybody else, and I found out that wow, everybody is doing just as well as we are.
Q: Will you change your teaching as a result of what you’ve learned?
A: I want to use technology in even more innovative ways. I have a 3D printer and a laser cutter in my classroom, but I saw teachers make very good use of Skype and Google Hangouts. When I went to Greensburg, Kan., for example, a teacher was doing a project about the music industry, and she had the CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America on a Google Hangout talking with her students.
Q: One of your frequent themes is that building relationships with students is the most important part of teaching – that content is secondary. Do you think that message was heard?
A: The message is certainly heard by educators … I think the policymakers heard it, too, but it’s so hard to craft in policy. We have a desire to make education so efficient that we forget sometimes that we are dealing with children with needs and issues. Sometimes education does have to be more like a meandering river, with twists and turns in it. We have to make sure we provide enough flexibility for skillful educators to make those decisions.
Q: You’re a supporter of the Common Core standards. Tell us about that.
A: I’m a supporter of the standards, absolutely. When I read them, I really don’t have a big problem with them. But the debates about the standards really blur four separate conversations.
There are the standards, which is one conversation. Then there is the curriculum that addresses those standards, which is a second. Then there are the tests to assess the standards, and then there is what to do with those tests.
When people say they’re against the Common Core, I don’t know if that means if they’re opposed to the standards themselves, or if they’re opposed to the test … I think we need to have clear discussions about what we’re ready for and what we’re not ready for.
Q: After so many public appearances, what question are you most tired of?
A: The Common Core question because I wish that our discussions about education were much broader. The Common Core is important, but it’s still just a tool. It’s not going to solve all of our problems in education, and it’s not going to cause all of our problems either.
Q: What question do you wished you were asked?
A: I would have liked to talk more about ways to get teachers at the policy table. There are some ideas that are pretty simple. Let’s think about when the legislature is in session. For a teacher to testify, they have to take a day off from school … and many teachers are unwilling to do that. Why aren’t we taking advantage of technology, using Skype or Google Hangout?”
Q: What do you hope you’ve accomplished this year?
A: I hope I’ve brought a little bit of inspiration to teachers, reignited some passion. I think all of us need a pep talk once in a while, and I hope I’ve provided that for some.