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Innovative science teacher honored as National Teacher of the Year

Council of Chief State School Officers

Jeff Charbonneau, who teaches chemistry, physics and engineering in Zillah, Wash., is the 2013 National Teacher of the Year.

A high school science teacher who starts class each day by saying, "Welcome back to another day in paradise," and who came up with a unique way for his students to graduate from their small, rural high school with college credit has been named the National Teacher of the Year.

Jeff Charbonneau, of Zillah High School in Washington state, was honored by President Barack Obama on Tuesday afternoon, along with all of the other 2013 state teacher winners.

Charbonneau, 35, teaches chemistry, physics, engineering and architecture in Zillah, a city of barely 3,000 residents in Washington's Yakima Valley.

Charbonneau acknowledges that the subjects he teaches are challenging ones. But through interactive learning -- Charbonneau founded a statewide robotics competition and helped create an ecology program where students go on hiking excursions that can last up for up to two weeks -- he hopes his students can learn better.

“I fight a stigma,” Charbonneau wrote in his application for the Washington State Teacher of the Year, which he was awarded back in September.  “Students hear the words ‘quantum mechanics’ and instantly think ‘too hard’ and ‘no way.’  It is my job to convince them that they are smart enough, that they can do anything.”

Charbonneau has managed to set his students up for success after they graduate. By acquiring adjunct faculty status with several local universities, Charbonneau can award his students college credit through their high school science classes -- a deviation from other schools that enable students to place out of courses through Advanced Placement testing, which doesn't award credits. Other teachers at the school have followed suit, giving students a broad range of subjects to get college credit in before they graduate.

Council of Chief State School Officers

Jeff Charbonneau teaches students at Zillah High School, a small, rural school of 400 students in Yakima Valley, Wash.

Since he started offering the college credit program two years ago, enrollment in his upper-level science courses has increased.

“Over 60 students in this coming year’s junior class – a class of just over 100 students – have signed up to take chemistry. About 26 of the coming year’s seniors – a class of just over 80 students – will take physics,” Charbonneau wrote in his application.

Zillah High School has about 18 classes that offer college credit, Zillah's guidance counselor, John Griffin, told NBC News. 

"That's pretty neat for a small high school," Griffin said. "Most of our students want to take the challenge if they can. Some of them are a little bit leery because they don't the confidence yet in themselves. That's something you develop in high school. But we have such great teachers that work those programs, like Jeff Charbonneau, and they help soothe that anxiety."

The high school, which has about 400 students, is also Charbonneau's alma mater.

National Teachers of the Year are selected by the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit panel of educators that chooses the finalists from the 2013 state teachers of the year in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Nominations for state teachers come from students, teachers, principals, and administrators; teachers then must submit applications to the panel.

Other finalists for 2013 National Teacher of the Year were Rhonda Holmes-Blankenship of Maryland, Alex Lopes of Florida, and Heidi Welch of New Hampshire.

Griffin, who was Charbonneau's guidance counselor back when he attended Zillah, said Charbonneau was more nervous about another honor he received earlier this month.

"He loves baseball," Griffin said. "We talked with him several weeks ago. We asked him, what's going to be nerve-wracking for you: Throwing the first pitch out at the Mariners' game, or meeting President Obama? He said, 'Definitely the first pitch. I don't want to be a worm-burner!'"