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Jeff Charbonneau
Jeff Charbonneau

When Jeff Charbonneau begins class everyday at Zillah High, he says the same thing:

“Welcome to paradise, everybody.”

No, Zillah High isn’t on the sandy shores of Hawaii. In fact, the place is far from it, nestled in the Yakima Valley of Eastern Washington.

But after 60 people took four hours to clean up vandalized school property four years ago, Charbonneau realized what kind of place he was at.

“When you’re in paradise, you care enough to maintain it,” he says in the video above. “You care enough to put into the sweat equity and hard work to make sure you can build it up. That’s why I say that, because I truly believe that’s where I teach.”

Now, paradise has a teacher with a new accolade: 2013 National Teacher of the Year.

Charbonneau became the 63rd National Teacher of the Year today — the first from Washington since 2007 — and will be recognized by President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday, along with three other finalists and all the 2013 State Teachers of the Year.

Charbonneau has an interesting story. He’s taught for 12 years at the very same high school he graduated from, and you could say he’s giving back in big ways.

He teaches a number of STEM-related topics, and also acts as the science club and yearbook advisor, runs a regional robotics competition, helps with drama productions and is the co-president of the Zillah teachers union.

“I teach chemistry, physics and engineering,” he says in the video above. “You can’t say ‘nerd’ much better than that.”

Jeff Charbonneau keeps a backwards clock in his class room. “It’s all about how to think,” he said. “I want them to look at an everyday object differently.”

Charbonneau’s classed are STEM-focused — that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. A recent survey showed that an estimated 30,000 STEM jobs in Washington will go unfilled in the next five years due to a lack of qualified candidates.

That makes Charbonneau’s work all the more special.

“STEM sometimes sounds a little scary at first to high school students. You hear ‘quantum mechanics,’ and you think, ‘no way,'” he said this morning on CBS (video below). “You’ve got to show them nothing in this life is truly hard. It might be 1,000 steps long, but each step pretty simple. If you show them the relevance of each step, they’ll be able to understand it pretty well.”

But the National Teacher of the Year doesn’t expect all his students to become scientists, computer geeks or engineers.

“I teach quantum mechanics, universal gravitational acceleration — lots of weird, strange concepts,” he said. “Ironically, I don’t want my students to come away with memorizing equations.

“What I want them to learn, No. 1, is confidence in themselves. That yes, they are smart enough to do this.”

washingtonstemIn the video above, Charbonneau says that regardless of which career path his students pick, he wants them to have at least some sort of background knowledge of science. That way, he says, they’ll be more educated when society votes on things like stem cell research.

Heck, STEM even applies to startups.

“When they go into business, I want them to learn whatever the applied statistics are that they need to know for that,” he said.

Charbonneau, who will spend a year traveling as an ambassador for the teaching profession, also created a program to help students get college credit for high school classes outside of Advanced Placement tests. Coincidentally enough, Washington State Legislature today voted 95-0 to pass a new bill that will allow computer science classes to count as a math or science requirement toward high school graduation.

Charbonneau said on CBS that a great teacher is “somebody who thinks of content second.”

“Relationships with students come first,” he said. “If you can make a positive relationship with a student, you can teach them darn near anything.”

It’s obvious that Charbonneau loves his job — he calls his students an “extended family.” Here’s to hoping he’ll inspire other educators as well.

“I haven’t gone to work in 12 years — I’ve gone to school,” he said. “I’ve hung out with really cool kids. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘I’m going to work,’ and they are the reason why. I get to do something different everyday and I know I get to make a difference by the end of it.”

You can read all the inspirational stories from Washington’s Teachers of the Year here.

Previously on GeekWire: Washington passes bill to count computer science for math, science credit … The future of education: What entrepreneurs need to know about entering the e-learning spaceUW-Bothell becomes first university in Washington to create School of STEM

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