Sydney Chaffee, a ninth-grade humanities teacher from Boston, has been named National Teacher of the Year, making her the first teacher from Massachusetts — and the first working in a charter school — to win the honor.
Chaffee will spend the next year traveling the country, talking with teachers and serving as an ambassador for their profession. She’s taking on that responsibility at a time when education policy is even more intensely politicized than usual, as President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have sought to promote parents’ access to charter schools, private-school vouchers and other alternatives to public schools.
Chaffee said that she intends to use her platform to send the message that “public schools are the best schools” — and that charter schools are public schools that are strongest when they’re held accountable for students’ performance.
“The conversation needs to be rooted in what are all of our public schools doing, and how can they work together to make sure that kids are getting the best education possible?” she said.
The National Teacher of the Year competition, run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, has for decades sought to recognize the country’s most exceptional teachers. The council says Chaffee is the first teacher working in a charter school to win the top award, but previous winners have come from alternative schools, public magnet schools and private schools.
Chaffee said she went into teaching a decade ago because of the exceptional teachers she had, who inspired her to stay in school as long as possible. She gravitated toward Codman Academy Charter Public School, a K-12 school in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, not because it was a charter school but because it seemed like a good place to work and to learn.
“Kids seemed happy there, they seemed to be learning there, they seemed to be engaged in really good authentic, rigorous work,” she said.
Most of Codman Academy’s 345 students are children of color, and most come from low-income families. The school’s philosophy is to connect students’ learning to the real world in as many ways as possible. For Chaffee, that means using her courses to tie together history and literature, and to help students see the role they can play in making change in the world.
Her students cap study of Puerto Rico by writing to Congress to weigh in on whether the territory should become a state. Their efforts to understand apartheid in South Africa are enriched by visitors from South Africa who can speak to how racism affected their lives. And every year, her students partner with a local theater company to produce and act in a play. This year, that project required Chaffee to expand a script written for two characters into one that would accommodate 46 young actors.
“Sydney accomplishes more in one day than what most educators would aspire to complete in one week,” Meg O’Brien, manager of education operations at the Huntington Theatre Company, wrote in a letter endorsing Chaffee for the national honor.
Chaffee also revamped the school’s weekly “community circles,” where students come together to perform for one another, praise one another and share thoughts on difficult topics of the day.
“Sydney has taught me a lot of things, not only about reading, writing and history,” sophomore Hayley Horton wrote in a letter of recommendation. “She also taught me to have self-worth, to be happy, and to be independent.”