Our Voice: Zillah's national teacher of the year shows us how to inspire students

National Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau makes an interesting observation on education.

His award is proof that learning is not a function of how much money you throw at education -- although we still recommend fully paying for our schools.

Rather, Charbonneau makes the case that excellence can happen anywhere. Not by talking about it, but by doing it.

He teaches in Zillah -- not one of the affluent school districts in the Seattle suburbs.

He's been there for 12 years.

When he arrived, there was no engineering curriculum and kids had to go off campus for technology classes. Now kids from Zillah routinely graduate from high school with college-level science credits already on their transcripts. And the schools need to hire more science teachers to keep up with the demand.

His big push is for teachers to know their students. Really know them.

Apparently it's easier to inspire students when you have a positive relationship with them. And inspired kids challenge themselves.

"It's my job to convince them that they are smart enough, that they can do anything," Charbonneau said.

At the White House ceremony to honor Charbonneau, President Obama recognized that as a country we have fallen behind in math and science education.

At the same time, Obama said he values the arts, lest we offend the English majors among us.

Both are important.

Obama also said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is looking at ways to overhaul the educational system and is taking cues from outstanding teachers like Charbonneau.

Obama wants to prepare an additional 100,000 math and science teachers across the country during the next decade and creating a Master Teachers Corps to network and mentor them.

Obama noted that producing engineers and scientists is important, but it's more important to produce caring adults.

"In classrooms across America, they're teaching things like character and compassion and resilience and imagination. They're filling young minds with virtues and values, and teaching our kids how to cooperate and overcome obstacles."

Much goes into becoming National Teacher of the Year, but personal concern for the students is a good place to start.

We all flourish when we know someone cares about us.

In his speech, Obama quoted Charbonneau as saying a teacher's "greatest accomplishments are revealed each time a student realizes that he or she has an unlimited potential."

It's a good philosophy -- one that we can all adopt, teachers or not. And we suspect it works on adults as well as teens and youngsters.