National Teacher of the Year in 2017 is a Charter School Teacher
- By Sarat Pratapchandran
- April 1st, 2018
Sydney Chaffee, a ninth-grade humanities teacher from Boston was named National Teacher of the Year in 2017, the first teacher working in a charter school to win the honor.
You’ve been in the charter school system for quite some time and you have accomplished a lot. How has the system helped you innovate?
My school’s leadership has always trusted my ability to design a rigorous, meaningful curriculum for my class (with support and guidance from my instructional coaches). That autonomy—to select texts, design assessments, and plan daily activities—has allowed me to innovate within my curriculum.
You’ve brought in a lot of creativity and context to the way you teach students. For instance, when students learn of apartheid, you relate it to the Black Lives Matter movement...how do you accomplish that as a mainstream teacher with a well-rounded education to kids who come from a totally different, diverse background?
The best way for teachers to ensure that our curricula are relevant to our kids’ lives is just to listen to them. My students brought up connections they saw between anti-Apartheid activism and the Black Lives Matter movement, and I made space for them to explore those connections. If we give our students the space and time, they will tell us how they see history connecting to their own lives. Then it’s up to us to figure out how to use that knowledge to deepen and enrich their understanding.
How do you manage the cultural switch in reaching out to children from a different setting? What has success been and how genuine has it been?
There’s nothing more important in teaching than building relationships. When my students see that I care about them as people, that I want to get to know who they are, that I’m honest about who I am—that’s when we connect, despite our differences.
I know that some kids walk into my classroom on Day 1 and think, “Who is this white lady, and what does she think she’s going to teach me?” (I know this because a student recently told me that’s exactly what she thought when she met me!) So I’m open with them, from the beginning of the year, about my identity and the ways in which I know I need to work to understand where they’re coming from. I let them know that talking about race is not only okay in my class; it’s a necessary part of studying history and understanding one another as a community.
I’ve learned over the years that all of this work in my classroom has got to be supported by my own internal work as a white educator. I work to understand and confront my own internal biases and constantly educate myself on the history of race, racism, and white supremacy in our country. If I want to be the teacher my kids deserve to have, I need to always be engaged in active learning about racial justice and equity.
What are your biggest fears as a teacher?
There are two: the somewhat silly one, that a lot of teachers have, is the fear that manifests as “imposter syndrome.” It’s the fear that we’re not actually any good at this job, and any day now, we’ll be found out. I definitely feel that fear often, especially now that I’ve gotten recognized as a teacher. As teachers, we want to do the best possible job we can for our students, so the anxiety that we might not actually be helping them learn in the way that we hope is big!
The second fear I have, that is similar to fears I have as a parent, is just that something bad will happen to my students. I think any time you spend a lot of time with people, build relationships with them, and care about them, there is a fear in the back of your mind that they could be hurt in some way. I want for my students to be happy and healthy. I want them to achieve their dreams. I want to run into them, years after they’ve graduated, and see them smiling and successful.
How has the charter school system fundamentally changed the education scene at the state level and the national level?
I have only ever worked in my one specific charter school, so I don’t know that I can speak to the system-wide implications of education reform and charter schools.
What do you feel now winning the award as “Teacher of the Year,” for the first time for a charter school? Do you think the foundations of the public school system have received a slight, rude awakening?
I am a public school teacher, and I’m proud to have the opportunity to represent my colleagues as Teacher of the Year. Certainly, my role as a charter schoolteacher has led to some provocative conversations this year, but for me, my focus has always been, and will continue to be, on advocating for every single student to have access to a great education. Sometimes, that will happen in a charter school; sometimes, it will happen in a traditional public school. There is great work happening in all different kinds of schools and classrooms across our country, and I want to highlight and celebrate that work.
I’m not interested in conversations that pit one kind of school against another. When I talk to other teachers, we don’t generally argue with one another about whether charter schools or traditional public schools are “better.” We debate the issues respectfully, ask each other questions, look for connections, and collaborate to share resources and ideas. That kind of respectful, curious conversation—grounded in our shared convictions about doing what’s best for kids—is what I’m interested in being a part of.
What are your future plans? Will you be teaching at Codman?
I’ll return to Codman Academy in the fall of 2018 to resume my post as the 9th grade Humanities teacher. I’m very much looking forward to getting back to my daily work with students, because I love it!
In addition, I’m hoping to take on some new responsibility as an instructional coach for fellow Humanities teachers. I also have a new dream of starting a “future teachers club” for students at my school as one small way to help recruit talented educators of color into schools.
I’d love to continue traveling and speaking as a teacher leader and an education advocate, as well!
You talk about leadership...how can a teacher be a leader?
Teachers already are leaders. Every day, we lead classrooms full of students to achieve more than they believed they could. The trick is in convincing teachers that we have the skill and the ability and the right to lead adults, too. We don’t always have confidence in our own leadership ability the way that we do in our students’ leadership ability.
That said, I think teachers can be leaders within the educational system by advocating for policies that we know will help our students succeed and be happy, healthy human beings. We can influence policymakers by telling them stories from inside of our classrooms and inviting them in to see our work first-hand.
Teachers can also be leaders in our own schools and districts by mentoring other teachers, working in collaborative groups to improve practice, leading professional development on our own best practices or new understandings, and encouraging leadership in others (including students). There are a ton of different ways for teachers to lead!
What is one sentence that you would always leave for your students?
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” –Nelson Mandela or “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” –Steve Biko.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of School Planning & Management.