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Q&A with National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee: “Good teachers are willing to learn, grow, and question things.”

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    April Hattori

Sydney Chaffee is a 9th grade Humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School, an EL Education Credentialed School in Dorchester, MA.  She talked with EL Education about what the National Teacher of the Year honor means to her, how her practice has evolved, and the role of EL Education in her teaching and learning.

What does the National Teacher of the Year award mean to you? What do you hope to accomplish in the next year with your recognition?

The award is an opportunity to serve as an ambassador for a year and as a representative of all teachers. My dad brags that I’m best teacher in the country, but no, it’s me getting selected to represent all of the great teachers in the country. It’s an incredible honor and humbling. I look forward to the ways I can grow and learn from my colleagues.

Things in education are pretty divisive with conversations about school choice and the right direction. Being a teacher in a charter school, I’m right in the middle of it and uniquely positioned to talk about it. I feel responsible to have those conversations and figure out how to be an agent for change with policy decisions about public education for this country. I’m working to get my head around this big piece of work.

In addition, I’m interested in integrating theater and arts education into what we do. I’m a Humanities teacher but the Huntington theater partnership is a big part of what we do. And I’m passionate about social justice and how education can be a tool for how we get all students access to rigorous learning.

How do you think Codman is different and how did that affect your development as a teacher? What is your perception of the impact of EL Education’s model on both of those things?

The special magic at Codman, one that a lot of other schools share, includes putting kids first, building relationships with them as trusting human beings who take risks to grow. Codman and EL Education have helped me develop and pushed me with Habits of Scholarship. [See Building Character resource]  Instead of homework completion and effort, we talk about compassion.  My students just finished a big play. To be able to talk to them with a shared language of compassion is just as important as teaching kids to read and write.  Habits of Scholarship has taught them to be big thinkers.  We’ve come far with EL Education.

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You contributed to the development of two EL Education 8th grade curriculum modules. What do you think of the curriculum and why did you contribute to it? How was the experience of creating the curriculum?

I answered a call for educators to participate in a week-long summer workshop to develop curriculum. When I got there, I learned Suzanne Plaut, EL Education’s Director of Curriculum Design, is a genius--I realized that quickly. I thought I would have to just share my expertise, but I was disavowed of that notion quickly. There was so much I didn’t know. I learned so much.

A key question in our work was: What are we talking about when we talk about unpacking standards? I felt like I had never understood the Common Core standards before that exercise. Suzanne introduced the three shifts in Common Core for ELA, which were new to me. Most of the other teachers were nodding in the room, and I realized we’re part of this bigger landscape and I had so much to learn.

I also appreciated the focus on backwards planning, which I thought I knew.  But I learned how to backwards plan in a way that was intentional, thoughtful, and more effective.

EL Education’s  four T’s method is visionary. It was valuable to learn how the combination results in lessons that are memorable and impactful with kids.

I’m so proud of the work I did on the 8th grade curriculum, though I don’t use it since I teach 9th grade. But when an 8th grade teacher at my school had questions about it, I was excited to be able to tell him all about it.

The curriculum has so much strength and brainpower behind it. When curriculum is planned with joy, you can feel it when you work with kids. I definitely have pulled a lot of the lessons into my planning and my colleagues (have as well). The four T’s are something we do at Codman now.

What do you think makes an effective teacher?
The willingness to admit you don’t know everything. As teachers, we have to be willing to change, tweak, and question what we’re doing.

We also need to be passionate about what we’re teaching.

I love history. I’m a history nerd. I want to help students understand where we came from, to understand the present, and also to think about what this means for what can happen in the future.  Students can sense when something is important and fascinating. The same thing goes for literature and writing. It’s a huge part of buy-in. To get a bunch of teens interested in this topic, you have to show them that it is interesting and makes connections to their lives.

Many teachers are passionate, but the lack of supporting structures in their school doesn’t allow them to be as effective as they could be.

I think having systems in place where teachers can collaborate and get good coaching and feedback and set goals and work toward them is critically important.

If I were working in isolation, I might be passionate, but not have the tools to translate that to kids. Sorting through work protocols in teams and talking about student work and what they’re learning is very important. Also, having coaching and mentoring in place to help teachers make sure they have time and can prioritize is critical.

Access to resources has to be coupled with coaching. With Google, we have access to anything. We need something to help us think about it. With the EL Education curriculum, if that 8th grade teacher tried to do it every day exactly as written, it may not be as successful. He needed a coach to think with him about his students, what they needed, and make it fit for them.

What is one priority you have for this year?
I’m a learner, and really want to be a learner this year. As good teachers, we always have to be willing to learn and grow and question what we know because this award isn’t about “I’m a great teacher and know everything there is to know,” but more: “I’m open to learning and growing.”