Sydney Chaffee teaches at Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester.

Credit: WGBH News

Mass. Teacher Of The Year Leads A Class Of Social Justice Warriors

January 23, 2017

Massachusetts Teacher of the Year is now one of four finalists to become the National Teacher of the Year.

At Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester, Sydney Chaffee grills her 9th grade humanities class on Nelson Mandela and South African apartheid history.  
“Anyone know how long [Mandela] was in jail?” Chaffee calls out.

A handful of students reply, “27 years.”

This is just a glimpse of the class curriculum, which centers on social justice and injustice dating back to 1492. It’s a collaborative classroom where Chaffee urges students to think critically and problem solve together.

“I try to create an environment where it’s OK to be wrong,” says Chaffee. “That’s how we get smarter, and then normalize it, we’re a community, we’re a team, let’s be nice to each other. Let’s share our brain.”

Codman Academy has been her home for 10 years. She says as cliché as it sounds, this school is her family.

“I love the sense of community here; I love the warmth here. I love the fact that we really focus on building relationships with kids, that we see kids as whole people.” Chaffee said.

This mutual respect and admiration is palpable. Chaffee jokes around with her students but she’s tough— one of the reasons why Thabiti Brown, head of the school, nominated her for Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.

“Sydney is very lovable,” says Brown. “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.”

Chaffee has fused her passion for social justice and experiential learning by partnering with the Huntington Theater Company, where students explore the themes they learn in class onstage. This project is one of the reasons she became a finalist to be national teacher of the year. But what students like 9th grader Jordyn Davis tell me—it’s more than that.

“She is a mother figure to me and it’s just, like, she’s been there. She’s just there,” says Davis. “And it feels good to know you have someone there. It’s nice to know that when I come to her classroom.”

Hayley Horton, now a 10th grader, wrote a letter of recommendation to the Council of Chief State Officers supporting Chaffee’s nomination.

“Sydney is all about positivity. She wants to make sure that every student here is smiling. I feel like she doesn’t need this award-- Teacher of the Year. But they need her,” Horton says, flashing a big smile.

The Council of Chief State Officers will announce the winner this spring. As for Chaffee, she finds the whole notion of being nominated humbling and by no means a reason to rest on her laurels.

“I don’t feel like my work is done. I don’t feel like I’ve reached this pinnacle. I feel every day, like, OK, here are the 10 things I need to get better at today,” Chaffee says. “And so it’s nice to get recognized, and just a reminder of how hard we are all working and how much I still have to learn and how much I still have to grow.”

A life lesson for all of us.  

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