Saugerties High School Class of 2001 alumni Sydney Chaffee was named last week as the 2017 National Teacher of the Year, chosen by an organization of school officers from various states following a rigorous application process.
Chaffee, a ninth-grade humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston, will travel across the United States in her prestigious role, meeting with educators and serving as an ambassador for teaching.
“It’s an incredible honor to be selected as National Teacher of the Year,” said Chaffee, who learned she’d been chosen on Thursday, April 20. “My colleagues in teaching are an amazing, brilliant, dedicated group of people, and to have the opportunity to represent them in this work is humbling.”
Chaffee spent her first three grades at Riccardi Elementary School, moving to Cahill in the fourth grade before renovation and expansion of the village school sent her back to Riccardi for a year. She closed out her elementary school years back at Cahill before heading off to the junior high school.
After graduating from Saugerties High, Chaffee she attended Sarah Lawrence as an undergrad, earning her master’s degree at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Chaffee is the first-ever charter-school recipient of the award. She said the distinction hasn’t altered what winning means to her. “I imagine I would feel the same way no matter what type of school I taught in,” Chaffee said. “To me, this isn’t about being a charter-school teacher; it’s about being a teacher.”
What she’ll tell President Trump
Also a Massachusetts Teacher of the Year award winner, Chaffee has yet to be scheduled for the traditional honorary ceremony with the country’s president, but when she does she plans on speaking up for the profession of teaching and public schools. “I’d love to see President [Donald] Trump and [Education] Secretary [Betsy] DeVos focus on strengthening our public education system,” Chaffee said. “We have great teachers working to provide access to a strong education in schools all over our country; the administration should seek to learn from those teachers in order to inform policy decisions.”
She was eager to talk about the positive role the arts can have in our schools. “I have seen the arts transform students, both in terms of their academic skills and their self-confidence,” she said. “I’d like the current administration to recognize the value in arts education and make decisions that reflect that understanding.”
Though public and charter schools are often pitted against each other, Chaffee said they’re both different types of the same thing. “Public schools give all students access to a high-quality education,” she said. “They provide opportunities for all students to learn and grow. Charter schools are public schools that are free and open to all students. At their best, they are sites of innovation situated within and engaged with communities. I have seen some amazing work that benefits kids and families come out of partnerships between charter schools and traditional public schools, and that is the way that the system should work.”
Chaffee likes to draw parallels in the classroom between the past and present, citing connecting the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement to apartheid as just one example.
“Kids are curious, and they will make these connections naturally,” she said.
“Building in space for students to discuss those connections is respectful of kids as learners and as people, so it’s incredibly important. Making connections between the past, present, and future helps us understand the stories and the implications of history. It makes the learning ‘stick,’ because it makes the learning relevant and real.”
Connecting with her peers
She will now have a chance to connect with colleagues across the United States. “I want to talk to as many teachers as I can about the great work happening all over the country, and then use my platform to amplify those stories and strategies for a wider audience to hear,” she said. “I also want to keep talking about how we can ensure access to a high-quality education for all learners, how we can integrate the arts into education, and how we can use education as an opportunity to work for social justice.”
Saugerties educators were pleased with the recognition Chaffee received for her work in teaching, including the connection to home.
“In 2000, I transitioned from being a teacher at Saugerties High School to the assistant principal,” said superintendent Seth Turner. “Sydney Chaffee was a senior that year, and to the best of my knowledge was not going to college to become an educator. She was a cool kid, sort of quiet, and strong in an understated way.
“My job was to be in the hallways, cafeteria, and bus circle to try and assist … I chaperoned activities, the pep rally and dances …. But the class of 2001 was a handful. I’m not sure which teachers Sydney specifically credits for inspiring her, but I’ve spoken to a few from that era and as can be expected they are bursting with pride. I have been able to text her and congratulate her, and I’ve already made a request to have her comeback to her alma mater. I also encouraged Sydney to use her opportunity and time in the spotlight to try and promote change for millions of children.”
Chaffee said she developed her love of learning in the Saugerties schools. “Mr. [Michael] Riley was my history teacher in tenth or eleventh grade,” she said. “I still remember the day that he taught us about Aaron Burr. The way he talked about historical figures made them come alive. People like Burr weren’t just names in a history textbook in his class. They were real people with quirks and personalities. I loved learning about history through stories, and that has informed my own teaching of history. And, of course, I loved my creative writing, theater and art classes. Those were my safe haven. Regardless of what else was going on in my day, when I entered those spaces, I felt like I could relax and express myself.”
Turner expects Chaffee to join the ranks of other celebrated Saugerties alumni and alumnae, like Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, legendary comic-book artist Joe Sinnott, and Peter Zmiyarch, head of security for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
“The National Teacher of the Year is the pinnacle of the education profession,” said Turner.
The role of an inspiration
What would Chaffee say to other kids, like those in Saugerties, who might find her an inspiration? “I want young people to know that they are powerful,” she responded. “One of my favorite things to teach in my ninth-grade humanities class is how students resisted the injustice of apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s. As a result of student protests in Soweto, other countries started to really pay attention to what was happening in South Africa. Young people changed the course of history in that time and place. Sometimes, students feel like they are powerless to effect change. But history shows us that students have powerful voices when they organize.”
Chaffee would like to encourage kids to be themselves and stay true to who they are. “I want young people to believe in their own brilliance,” she said. “In high school, we can sometimes get bogged down in traditional notions of what intelligence and success look like — test scores or transcripts or awards. But in reality those represent a narrow definition of success. Students need to know that they are more than numbers or report cards. They are whole human beings with gifts and insights to offer the world. If they can find something they are passionate about, whether that be art or math or BMX or veterinary medicine, they can start to explore and redefine brilliance for themselves. Then their teachers can work with them to make connections between that passion they feel and their academic work in school. And then they’ll be unstoppable.”