Teaching Profession

Humanities Teacher at Boston Charter School Named 2017 Teacher of the Year

By Madeline Will — April 20, 2017 3 min read
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Sydney Chaffee, who teaches 9th grade humanities at a small Boston public charter school, has been named the 2017 National Teacher of the Year.

Chaffee, who has taught for 10 years, was announced as the 66th winner of the national prize today on CBS This Morning. A humanities teacher hasn’t won the contest since 1998, and there hasn’t been a National Teacher of the Year from Massachusetts in the awards’ 65-year history.

Chaffee, who teaches at Codman Academy Charter Public School, connects history and literature to help her students learn from the past to make change in the world. She teaches about resistance movements and the history of people who have been oppressed and marginalized. Her school is 98 percent students of color.

In an interview with Education Week Teacher, she said she hopes to spend her year as the national teacher focusing on what works best for diverse learners in the classroom.

“I really want people to understand that students have potential and power,” she said.

A video played on CBS This Morning asked her students why they love their teacher, whom they call by her first name. They said Chaffee is a good listener, cares about them, and takes the time to get to know them.

“It’s weird that she can relate to us, she’s like a tall, adult, white lady talking to a bunch of black kids,” one student said.

The students also spoke of how Chaffee motivates them and asks questions to make sure they understand the lessons and are thinking deeply. One student said: “Basically, she finds ways to get in my head.”

Chaffee told Education Week Teacher that learning needs to be authentic, and humanities teaches “about real subjects that matter” in an interdisciplinary way.

To that end, she also partners with a local theater company so that her students can explore the themes of justice and injustice through collaborative projects. She takes her 9th graders there weekly, and the year ends with a poetry competition and a play. “We are teaching them certain skills, but we are also just helping them discover who they are—we’re helping them discover the power that they have, and there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a kid take the stage and have all of the power in the room in their hand,” she has said.

As for what makes a good teacher, Chaffee said on CBS This Morning: “I think there is some sort of special magic—a deep desire to make change and build relationships with kids.”

“This award is so humbling because I am always thinking about how I can get better at this job,” she said. “Teachers understand that we’re learners, we’re always learners, and we model that for our kids.”

Chaffee was selected from 57 state teachers of the year by a national selection committee composed of representatives from 18 education and community organizations, organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers association. The other three finalists were: Megan Gross, a special education teacher in California, Athanasia Kyriakakos, a high school art teacher in Maryland, and Chris Gleason, a middle school music teacher in Wisconsin.

Last year, the honor went to Jahana Hayes, a high school history teacher from Connecticut.

Every year since 1952, there has been a White House ceremony honoring the National Teacher of the Year and the state teachers of the year—typically held soon after the announcement. The CCSSO does not yet have information on this year’s event, a spokeswoman said.

Some educators have said they would be wary of going to the ceremony this year, given the controversy and divisiveness surrounding President Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. But the four finalists all said they would attend the ceremony if invited.

Photo courtesy of CCSSO

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.