No matter the obstacle, Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 National Teacher of the Year, knows that her duty is to empower her students to be better learners and better humans. At a time when funding for teachers and schools is under threat, Chaffee embodies the dedication it takes to ensure that her students succeed in and out of the classroom every day. Following a ceremony honoring the 2017 Teachers of the Year, Chaffee sat down with Stephenie Johnson and Chris Ford to discuss her work at Codman Academy, a public charter school in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and the challenges teachers and students face every day.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The photograph of Sydney was taken by Edwin Yoo.
Stephenie Johnson: Sydney, let’s start off by talking about your overall vision for education. In a recent interview, you said that “education is a tool for social justice.” Can you talk more about your passion for social justice and equity?
Sydney Chaffee: Social justice is at the core of what I do as a teacher because it means that our students have equal access to a great education and a more equitable future and they have the tools to help create and shape that future. All kids deserve a great education. All kids deserve to live in a society where they are valued.
SJ: You said in the same interview that you “arm students to fight for the world that they want.” What type of world do your students want?
SC: My students envision a world for themselves where they are free to be who they are, valued as human beings and as contributors to society and to their community. My students dream of a world where they don’t have to fear for themselves because of the color of their skin or where they come from. They dream of a world where they can go to college and they can succeed and they can grow up and do whatever it is they and their families dream for them. They want to live in a world where people are just more equal, but they don’t see that as being their reality right now. They talk all the time about what we can learn from history to create that kind of a world.
SJ: Can you talk a little more about the connection between where we are currently and historically and what that looks like in the classroom?
SC: My students are primarily students of color, and when we learn about the history of oppression—specifically when the South African government controlled by white South Africans disenfranchised, disempowered, and oppressed people of color—they make all sorts of connections to today. They say, “Well, that’s not so different from this situation. That’s not so different from this thing I read about in the news. That’s not so different from the way that I sometimes feel.”
When we learn about history and when we understand history really deeply, we understand the present better and we understand the future. So when my students learn about apartheid, and they make those connections to today, then we start talking about, “Well, how did the people of South Africa resist and how did they fight back and try to reclaim power?” And my students start to realize: The students in South Africa organized a march, and that march got the attention of the entire world. Maybe, even though we’re 14 and even though sometimes people won’t listen to us, we do have a voice. Maybe we do have power. Maybe we can make a change in the world. That’s incredibly powerful.
SJ: You’ve likely seen some of your students enter college and graduate from college. Can you talk about what services and programs have helped them in that journey?
SC: Great teachers can do so much for kids, but great teachers exist within a community and larger network of support for students. My students have a ton of support. Our school building is connected to a community health center, where my students have the opportunity to do internships. So even before they’re going off to college, even before they’re entering the working world, they’re getting experience on the ground, in real careers in their community, and they’re able to see some of those possibilities for themselves.
Partnerships with schools really enable kids to grow in different ways. Codman has an amazing partnership with the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, where students learn performance skills while also deepening their literacy skills through doing theater work. And that work really helps them figure out who they are and helps them tap into what they want to say and how they want to use their voices.
SJ: Are there any federal programs that you think are at risk that currently help your students?
SC: I feel really strongly about the arts in our schools. I think that for me as a student, the arts were a real lifeline when I was growing up, and they helped me figure out who I am. I see that in my students as well. I want to ensure that funding for arts programs is going to continue for my students and for other students. Through the arts we can develop literacy, we can develop academic skills, but also, it just helps students grow and develop as humans.
SJ: You are the first teacher of the year from a charter school that we know of: Can you talk a little bit about Codman Academy and how your school meets the needs of all students?
SC: The first thing I want to emphasize is that charter schools are public schools, so I am a public school teacher. I am incredibly proud to work at a public school. We have a lot of students who have diverse learning needs. Whether they’re learning English, whether they have a learning disability, whether they’re coming into our school reading several grades below grade level—we work really hard to ensure that all of them have access. We have a strong special education department. We do a lot of training around how do we co-teach, how do we use an inclusion model for our students? And we are constantly pushing ourselves as educators to continue learning and growing.
SJ: What do you think leaders should systemically do to strengthen the teacher pipeline so that more people like you enter and stay in the teaching profession?
SC: I think the most powerful thing that policymakers can do is listen to teachers and talk to teachers in their state and in their district about what’s going on and what they need. The best ideas to address some of the challenges we face in education are going to come from teachers.
I also think making sure a student teacher has a practicum with a mentor teacher who has been trained really well and knows how to mentor a new teacher is important. If we can get more teachers of color into the teaching profession and then support them with mentorship to ensure that they stay in the profession, that’s obviously really important for our kids. If our students of color never have a teacher of color, what does that tell them about themselves? What does that tell them about the values of a school or who holds knowledge or what pathways are open to them?
SJ: Can you say anything about President Trump’s proposed budget, how it does or does not support teachers?
SC: I know that there are proposed cuts to Title II, Part A. If we want our students to succeed, we have to support our teachers in being as strong as they can. The way that teachers get better is through collaborating and learning from one another. If we value that, then we have to make sure there are resources available for them to do that.
SJ: Can you talk about a student who motivates you?
SC: A few years ago, I had a student who I had taught in ninth grade. When she was a senior, Michael Brown was killed. She remembered what we had learned about protest movements in South Africa. And she remembered what we had learned about students resisting. She actually organized a school walkout and sent a letter to the administration saying, “I’m organizing the students to walk out in recognition of what’s going on in Ferguson and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.” She organized the school to get up, leave class, walk out, and march to downtown Boston in solidarity with a larger march that was happening. She had really taken the lessons she had learned and figured out how they were relevant to her life in her context. That sort of thing inspires: They walked out of school; they missed class; and they learned so much that day.
Stephenie Johnson is an associate campaign director with the K-12 Education team at the Center for American Progress. Chris Ford is a special assistant for the K-12 Education team at the Center.