On the day Sydney Chaffee started kindergarten, her mom went back to college to finish earning her bachelor’s degree after being away from school for 10 years. Growing up, Chaffee saw her mother as a student—and then as a teacher—when mom graduated and became an adjunct professor at a local college. This was Chaffee’s first inspiration to pursue a career in education. Today, she is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year.
“All throughout my childhood, I saw how much she enjoyed working with her students,” said Chaffee, a ninth-grade humanities teacher at Codman Academy public charter school in Boston, Mass. “She showed me that education is powerful and we can change the course of our lives through learning.”
“To honor that legacy, Chaffee works diligently to establish her classroom as a safe haven for her students by differentiating instruction, building on the relationship that she has with them, showing them that she cares about them, and trying to understand what’s going on in their lives.
It’s a key reason why she’s stayed at the same school for 10 years. ‘It feels like a family,’ said Chaffee, who is married with a three-year-old daughter. “The work of education, like the work of raising a family, is hard. It requires limitless patience and deep love.”
The Five Values
At Codman Academy, Chaffee and the other teachers and administrators teach the values of five habits of scholarship: responsibility, effort, critique, collaboration and compassion. She believes these values are the cornerstone of a community that strives to help students succeed in the classroom and in life.
“No one of us can do the work of lifting up our students,” said Chaffee. “The best educators I know understand every child needs to be surrounded and supported by family members, teachers, school staff, religious leaders, mentors, coaches and family friends that form a partnership to help them succeed.”
Chaffee was selected as the 2017 National Teacher of the Year in April by a committee of 19 education organizations— including National PTA—from a group of exemplary teachers from each state, U.S. territories, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Education Activity. As Teacher of the Year, she is spending the year traveling across the nation and abroad to be a voice for educators and an advocate on behalf of teachers.
“Sydney believes all students deserve access to a high-quality education, and her approach to teaching demonstrates that belief, said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) that runs the National Teacher of the Year program. “She is optimistic but honest, humble but direct, and puts students at the center of everything she does.”
Dedication to Success
Thabiti Brown, head of school at Codman Academy, hired Chaffee. It was her first teaching job. He was impressed by her wisdom and depth of knowledge as a new educator then and he continues to be impressed by the work that she is doing now.
“She’s been a superstar for us for a long time,” said Brown, who believes Chaffee embodies what it means to be a lifelong learner. “She is all-in—absorbing, consuming and getting knowledge, then figuring out ways to implement it in her work. And I think that drive she has—to get better, to understand more—is what makes her so successful.”
Brown said that drive bleeds over into her teaching style. Chaffee’s curriculum “never stays still” because, at the end of every year, she revamps it.
“She goes in and adds elements,” Brown said. “I remember one year, she said, ‘There’s a subset of students who have a hard time reading the materials and getting the entry points. I’ve got to figure out how to include more entry points to all of the content.’ So, she went through every single day of her lesson plans to ensure that there was another set of reading for the students or that she could take a chunk of the reading out and highlight it in a different way, giving students more access.”
Chaffee believes that to truly change a child’s life through education, you have to build a relationship with their family so that learning can continue at home. She makes sure to be as accessible as possible, through phone calls, emails and in-person meetings.
“I always see teachers and family members as allies in the work of supporting children and making sure that we can communicate with one another in whatever way is going to ensure that we are able to work together and help lift that kid up,” Chaffee said.
Liza Marie White is the mother of Peyton, one of Chaffee’s students. She is appreciative of how much Chaffee has helped her son and his classmates succeed academically.
“This is our first year at Codman and it’s been a pleasure to work alongside Ms. Sydney,” White said. “Ms. Sydney seems to be able to bring a lot out of these kids and get them more comfortable in the classroom and comfortable with the content they’re learning, even if it’s not their strongest skill.”
Peyton White said “Ms. Sydney” is one of his best teachers.
“Ms. Sydney is one of my favorite teachers because I feel like she pushes me and she makes me want to be able to boost up my grade,” said Peyton. “Whatever way possible, she’s there to help me. I feel like I can go to her if I need help on work or just need to talk.”
Chaffee also encourages parents to help continue their child’s learning at home through reading together.
“I think that reading together or, as kids get older and they’re reading on their own, having a time where they’re seeing that you’re reading too would be so influential because reading impacts students academically across all sorts of disciplines,” she said. “It makes them better readers and it makes them better writers.”
Francis Pina teaches ninth-grade math and runs Community Circle Club with Chaffee. He shared his thoughts on what it’s like to work alongside her.
“It is very special to work with an educator like Sydney,” Pina said. “What makes it special is how she models best practices and self-reflection. It also helps that she embodies a growth-mindset and tries to get to know each of her students’ strengths and growth areas.”
It’s clear that Chaffee makes a difference in the lives of the students, families and fellow educators in her school community and now she will share her experiences and knowledge to make an impact in family and school partnerships across the nation and abroad this school year.
Alexis A. Goring is a freelance writer from Glenn Dale, M.D.