The 2017 National Teacher of the Year—the nation’s first charter school teacher to earn the honor—Sydney Chaffee reflects on her year traveling the country. We look forward to hearing from Sydney at the 2018 National Charter Schools Conference!
A few weeks ago, I visited the classroom of Stefan Lawrence, a high school English teacher at Carver High School in Columbus, Georgia. Although I only had the privilege of sitting in his class for a few minutes, I watched as he expertly led tenth graders through reading and analyzing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass—while making connections to students’ lives, drawing analogies to the movie Black Panther, and shouting out student athletes for their accomplishments. Stefan knows his students well, and his relationships with them enable him to push them academically. Spending time with Stefan and his students inspired me to remember how important it is to keep relationships central to my work as a teacher.
Stefan exemplifies the work that caring, skillful teachers do every day all across our country. (I’m not the only one who thinks so; he was recently announced as a finalist for Georgia Teacher of the Year.) I’ve been lucky enough to meet lots of great teachers like him. So for this Teacher Appreciation Day, I’m excited to share stories of just a few of the teachers who have inspired me this year.
The Teachers Who Have Inspired Me Back in November, I got to visit Beth Davey’s music classroom at Iveland Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri. Beth is the 2018 Missouri Teacher of the Year, and watching her lead her fifth graders through a series of activities, including an extended musical improvisation, was both impressive and inspiring. The kids moved quickly and comfortably from singing to drumming to using sign language to giving feedback to their partners. Beth had high expectations; kids were using technical vocabulary to speak the language of music, and she wasn't afraid to make them try something again if it wasn't right the first time. She did all of this with a calm, warm, authoritative air that said, I believe that you can do this, and I'm so happy to be here with you. Watching Beth teach inspired me to think creatively about making my classroom a site of simultaneously challenging and joyous work.
In February, I spent an afternoon with Megan Gross and her students at Del Norte High School in San Diego, California. Megan, the 2017 California Teacher of the Year and a finalist for National Teacher of the Year, teaches special education, and everything she does is driven by her deep, unyielding belief in her students’ abilities and brilliance. Megan and her students were reading the book Wonder that day—previewing vocabulary, grappling with layers of meaning, making connections. Every student was able to contribute to the discussion because Megan and her co-teachers had fostered an environment where their diverse learning needs were met and celebrated. But my favorite part of the visit was the campus tour her students gave me, led by a star wrestler who also happens to get around using a wheelchair. Being with Megan and her kids inspired me to expand my ideas about what truly inclusive classrooms look like.
The Work We Ask Students To Do Matters
In the middle of all of that travel, some pretty inspiring work was happening back home at my school, too. Teachers and staff at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston, Massachusetts, where I’ve worked for over a decade, helped elementary and middle school students write letters to President Trump, telling him their stories and encouraging him to show respect, empathy, and kindness to all people. When the letters were finished, some of the youngest students staged a “March for Kindness” to the post office to put the letters in the mail. Hearing about what my colleagues and their students were doing inspired me to make sure that the work we ask students to do matters—that it’s relevant and responsive to their lives.
Great teachers have so much more in common than some popular narratives about education might have us believe. Whether we work in charter schools or traditional public schools, whether we teach math or art, whether we have snow days or earthquake drills, we share a vision for what our kids deserve: an equitable, high-quality education built on a foundation of love.
This Teacher Appreciation Day, I hope we can remember that behind every headline about teachers, there are countless stories, like these, of teachers who care deeply about their work and who keep students at the center of every decision they make. Which is, in a word, inspiring.
Sydney Chaffee is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches ninth-grade humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Special Note for National Charter Schools Week (May 7-11): As part of our weeklong celebrations, the National Alliance will shine a spotlight on public charter school achievements by honoring the Change Makers of the public charter school movement. Today, our spotlight is Teacher Appreciation.
Photo Courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education