Whether she's coaching students for a live poetry performance, exploring social justice through lessons on South Africa and Puerto Rico, or pioneering a unique theater partnership, Sydney Chaffee strives daily to do right by her students and push herself to learn and grow.
“I love creating a sense of community, joy, and high expectations—and getting kids somewhere they maybe didn’t think they could go,” says Sydney, an alum who has been named a 2017 National Teacher of the Year—one of only four teachers in the country to win this distinction.
She is chair of the humanities department at Codman Academy Charter School in Boston, where she has taught ninth grade humanities ever since she earned her master’s degree in education at Lesley in 2007.
From Poet to Teacher
Sydney still marvels at her life today. For her, teaching was not a lifelong career goal.
“I thought I would be a poet,” recalls Sydney, who studied fiction and poetry as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College. Beyond that, she was exposed to ideas of education reform and her interest in education was piqued, prompting her to apply to graduate school here.
“Being at Lesley was the first time I had actually studied education,” she recalls. “I didn’t really know any of the theories that underpinned what I was doing or any of these things I was feeling myself get excited about, so learning the history and theory of pedagogy and techniques was amazing to me, and I enjoyed being in an environment where we all have this passion and idealism that drive our work with kids.”
Becoming a Star Teacher
In her humanities classroom, Sydney highlights moments in history that demonstrate justice, injustice and people fighting for justice, prompting her students to collaboratively explore what caused the situation, people’s responses, and what has happened since.
“I teach history through reading, writing, and literacy–and vice versa–and all of our courses are based around the idea of social justice, so it’s really relevant and engaging to kids,” says Sydney.
She challenges herself to access each student, which is all at once exciting, hard, amazing and painful.
“When they turn in piece of writing they’re really proud of, it’s amazing, but the journey can be so painful for the kids and the teacher,” she reflects. “Figuring out how to help kids unlock these skills is really challenging, but exciting. It’s like a puzzle.”
Sydney's principal, Thabiti Brown, nominated her for Teacher of the Year.
“Sydney is very lovable,” he told told WGBH News during a recent interview. “Warm personality, big heart. You combine that with her ability to perform and a deep knowledge of content and her deep knowledge of pedagogy and it makes for a really great teacher.”
Using the Arts and Drama to Teach
Sydney coordinates the Codman Academy partnership with the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, where her students go twice a month to learn acting and public speaking skills with professional performers.
Her classes participate in the national Poetry Out Loud competition, for which she helps them analyze and memorize a poem that they recite in front of a crowd.
“It’s a deep study of a piece of literature, and they bring it to life on stage,” she says.
Her students also put on a play at the end of the year, another arts- and drama-related exercise that’s “all in the service of literacy,” she explains.
“For some kids it really works and that’s the thing that really engages them,” she says. “And some kids hate it but they’re so proud of themselves after they perform the poem or the play.”
Sydney also finds time to mentor a group of a dozen female students, from all grades, following them through their entire four-year high school experience.
“I try to make myself really open and available to the kids and have kids know they can come and talk to me about anything they want to,” she says.
Going 'Beyond Teacher Appreciation'
The Council of Chief State School Officers, which is the national organization of school officials that administers the Teacher of the Year award, said in a statement that Sydney “strives to infuse the hard work of learning with joy.” The group lauded her for using education as “a transformative tool for social justice.”
Sydney demurs. She hopes to use the spotlight to promote teachers broadly.
“I want to make this about great teaching and learning, and what can we do to help each other get there,” says Sydney. “I think there’s something really wonderful about teacher appreciation, but how do we go beyond appreciation to respecting, listening to and valuing teachers? This gives me a platform to be an advocate and ambassador for teachers.”
Sydney believes teachers everywhere deserve support.
“It’s a profession,” she says. “People study their entire lives, and really great teachers are always improving.”
She continues, “There is such an urgency to the work and you want to do it right, but the nature of the work is that there’s always more to do. We always ask ourselves, ‘How do we teach well, and what lessons can we learn in order to do it better?’ That’s what I really appreciated at Lesley.”