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Sitting Down With A Star Teacher: Sydney Chaffee Of Codman Academy

Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, is one of the finalists for National Teacher of the Year. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, is one of the finalists for National Teacher of the Year. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Most teachers — like most workers — are never singled out and celebrated for the hard work they do in classrooms and at home, let alone with a national award.

That's why Sydney Chaffee's visit to WBUR on Tuesday was something of a special occasion.

Chaffee teaches humanities and English to ninth-graders at Codman Academy, a charter school in Dorchester. In May, she was named this year's Massachusetts Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the national organization of school officials that has administered the award since 1952.

On Monday, the CCSSO named Chaffee one of four finalists for the national version of the award. (The winner will be announced this spring.) Chaffee "strives to infuse the hard work of learning with joy," the CCSSO said in a statement, and sees education as "a transformative tool for social justice."

In her conversation with Radio Boston host Meghna Chakrabarti, Chaffee said she grew up wanting to be a poet, not a teacher. She discovered her passion and her talent in graduate school for education at Lesley University.

Here's a condensed and edited version of their conversation. You can listen to the interview here.

Tell me a little bit about what you teach.

I teach a year-long course called "Justice and Injustice." And we teach literacy through the lens of looking at these four historical moments where justice and injustice were at play. We relearn the story of Columbus. We learn the story of the Haitian revolution. Right now we're learning the story of apartheid, and we end the year by talking about whether Puerto Rico is a colony or not.

I can only imagine! And your students debate that?

They do.

What are those debates like?

Oh, they're amazing! We spend the whole year talking about colonialism and talking about these moments where Europeans colonized various places and what happened, and the justice and injustice that comes into play there — mostly injustice. How did people fight for justice?

And then we talk about America today. We say, "OK. There's this place, Puerto Rico. Let's look at it. It's called a territory — but what do you all think?"

They really get into it. They try to parse out the difference between a colony and a territory. And they come up against the fact that there's a lot of gray area. That's always really fun for me, when there's no right answer, because that's when the kids get fired up and they're really learning.

I imagine that in all the countries and areas that you talked about — that some of your students have family connections to those places.

Absolutely. One of the reasons that my school, Codman Academy, wanted the ninth-graders to learn about the Haitian revolution is that we do have a large population of students who are Haitian-American. That's always fun, to learn about that moment in history and have kids make connections with their own families and their own history, and to really feel this sense of pride about the place where they come from.

Was teaching something that was a calling to you from a young age?

No! Not that I knew of. Looking back now, I can sort of see it: I was bossy and I liked to learn things. [But] I wanted to be a writer. So I went to Sarah Lawrence College to be a poet, and one of my mentors there was Leda Sizer, who is a daughter of Ted Sizer — great education reformer. And so she sort of started to introduce me to this world of progressive education. And I started doing some reading, and that's how I got into it.

I never studied education in college — not until I got to grad school. And I realized very quickly, "This is what I love! This is my passion. I'm good at it, and it fuels me." How wonderful to have a job where I feel really good every day, and I feel really excited about what I'm doing, and I'm constantly learning.

In a speech that you gave when you were named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, you talked about another source of inspiration, and that was your mom. Can you tell me a little bit about her?

When I started kindergarten, my mother went back to college. She had left school to be a mom, and she'd stayed home with my sister for five years. And then I was born and she stayed home with me for five years. So she'd been out of school for 10 years. And she decided to go back.

I was in kindergarten and I was learning how to read and write, and she was getting her degree. She didn't stop there; she went on and got a master's. She started working toward a doctorate.

So my whole childhood growing up, my mother was either a student or a teacher — because eventually she started to teach as well. So I came up in this house of really strong women and with the understanding that to be educated and to know things was truly valuable — and was powerful. That was a part of her feminism, as well, which was really inspirational to me.

One of the things that I'm excited about is being able to have my own daughter see that. She's only 2. But I'm so proud of the fact that she'll be able to look back and know that her mother did these things while being a mom, and valued these things. That's really special to me.

Teaching is one of those professions that very often can be very rewarding. But it's also really hard. Can you tell me about some of the challenges that you faced, or maybe times where it got tough for you?

It's incredibly hard. You get into this work because you want to do right by kids, and because you believe all kids can learn — and, with the right supports, all kids can be successful. And it often feels like there are just not enough hours in the day to help every single kid in the way that you need to or you want to. And that is an incredibly difficult feeling.

I often will talk to new teachers about the feeling: You're trying to juggle all of these responsibilities and all of these different goals that you have, and you're constantly dropping one ball or another. And constantly scrambling to pick it up, and then dropping another. I think a lot of teachers struggle with never being good enough at what we're doing.

There's a really, really healthy drive in teachers to constantly improve ourselves, and to constantly learn more and to collaborate with one another to do better. But it can cross a line — into a place where we're not taking the time to care for ourselves, and to acknowledge the good and the power in what we're doing.

Has that happened to you?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I joke with my principal all the time that I'm 10 years in and I still feel like I'm in my first year sometimes. Or I still feel like I have no idea what I'm doing! It's a good challenge to have, but it can be hard.

You've been doing this for 10 years. What are some of the lessons you've learned as an educator about things that work for students, or broader things we could ideally put into place in schools across the state?

So one thing I'm really invested in is just relationship building. How do teachers build relationships with students that enable us to do really hard work together? The work we're asking students to do is hard. By building strong relationships with them, we can get them to take risks. And taking risks, they're going to learn and grow so much more.

So I'm really interested right now in the "social and emotional learning" (SEL) work that's happening. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is also putting resources into SEL right now.

I think that any time we can put time and thought and resources into our students' overall well-being — their social and emotional learning, as well as their academic learning — we're going to do better by kids.

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