The decorated educator
Sydney Chaffee was recently named the 2017 national teacher of the year by the Council of Chief State School Officers. A teacher in humanities, history and literature, she is a noted teacher from the Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston. As a recipient of the prestigious honor, she was granted a paid leave from her teaching position to advocate for teachers at home and abroad. She opened up to Samuel Getachew of The Reporter about her profession, her observation of local teachers and reflects on why America still has much to go before it fulfills its greatest promise. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Congratulations on being selected as teacher of the year. Looking at your social media account, you touch on a slew of subjects including the recent tragedy in Puerto Rico and on race relations. You recently took part in TEDx, in which you talk of the idea of empowering young people from the perspective of a teacher. Why are these ideals important to you as a teacher?
Sydney Chaffee: The role of teachers is to bring up the next generation in partnership with families. Our children spend so much time with teachers. They spend so much time in schools. So I think if we see our roles too narrowly, if we see our roles only as academic, then we are missing out this huge opportunity to help our students become citizens. They are the citizens of tomorrow that will run the world.
We have to empower our students to see to understand that what they are doing at school is learning the necessary skills as well as using the future tools that they will need to reform their future jobs. Some people think I want to empower students to believe all the things I believe. It’s not what I want to do. What I want to do is empower our students to know what they believe and be able to express it. There is nothing more important than understanding that today’s students are tomorrow’s adults and leaders.
That is our job. We have to raise tomorrow’s leaders.
You know the influence of America is everywhere in Ethiopia. From the ideals of John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, to empowering and giving scholarships to Ethiopians to go to American colleges and universities; America is seen in high regards by many. Why is it important for Americans, especially in 2017, to be engaged in world affairs?
Americans have to recognize we are powerful, privileged and we have influence. We have to recognize that. You brought up a great example. You looked at my social media and now we have an understanding of who I am. With the internet and social media, the world is increasingly global.
Our students are increasingly global and we have to be aware of what is happening in the world. We may have differences in languages, history, culture and background but in the end, we are humans. There is a shared humanity.
I got to go to this summer to space camp in America. I went with teachers and we learned about space travel. We did what students get to do when they go to space camps. There was an astronaut who came and spoke to us. We asked him what some of his biggest lessons were, from being an astronaut and he said that there was this moment where he was in space and he looked out the window and he saw the earth and realized that all of the things that we fight about seem so consequential. That is when you look down from space and you see it’s just one planet and that we are all riding on that planet together.
I think it’s really easy and Americans can sometimes exercise our privilege to ignore what is happening in the rest of the world and to not have a global understanding. But I do think it’s really important to understand a bit about our shared humanity and that we try to make sense of what is happening in the world.
Many do not enter the teaching profession to make money and it is obvious the teaching profession is one of the most neglected in America as well as in Ethiopia. You talk about empowering students, but how do you empower teachers?
That is a great question! Teachers are brilliant. It’s the hardest job in the world. To convince young people that they should listen to you and they should take these risks and do things that are difficult is a hard job. To figure out how to get in the minds of all of these different people in your classroom and get all of them to succeed is the hardest job.
We are often downgraded and so I think there is something about changing this perception of teachers in to one of real group of experts, real group of professionals who have studied and worked hard and continue to study and learn every single day. And one way we start to do that, I think, from the group is forming relationship with teachers and for every policymaker, who actually meets a teacher and actually goes to the classroom and sees the hard work.
I think we are starting to breakdown this stigma or this myth about teachers not being professionals, not having passion for the job. I think the other things that needs to happen is at the highest levels where we are making policies, teachers need to be involved in that process. This is because when teachers are invited to the policy making process and are invited to the table where decisions are being made then I think people will start to see our expertise and they start to see our knowledge and our creativity.
Teachers are the most creative people in the world. That is even when you put any obstacles our way; we tend to figure out a way to get it done anyway. Starting to listen to the voices of teachers in the classroom is an important step forward.
How did you find out you were selected as the Teacher of the Year?
I was in my kitchen; I was sitting on the floor with my daughter. She is three but she was two then. We were playing with clay and I got a phone call and they said – “the panel has selected you” – and I said, “Really, are you sure?” (laughs). There is this contrast between my normal life playing with my daughter and this amazing news. I was shocked.
There were four finalists. The other three were amazing teachers. I thought one of them would definitely get it and I would be proud to have them represent me. When they said I was the one, I was shocked, honored and humbled. It has been those emotions ever since.
If your daughter wanted to become an American president, a journey that was not realized in the 2016 presidential year, what advice would you give her?
My hope is that, by the time she is grown and wanted to be president, she would not be the first woman to be president of my country. I think that politicians need to listen to people. Politicians need to work to find the commonalities and the bridges between people. I think some of our best and inspiring politicians have done that. They have worked to unite people and not to divide them.
Honestly, that is my advice to her no matter what she wants to do in the world. As a person, as a human being, we should work to find the commonalities and work towards the things that unite people.
You are from Boston, a city that is attempting to refurbish and reform its educational sector. Some of its challenges are overwhelming. What are some of the reforms that you want to see implemented at home and you think might work in Ethiopia?
One of the things I think has been very positive, where it has happened is decreasing class sizes. Basically decrease the teacher-to-student ratio so each teacher has fewer students to teach. When we can decrease class sizes, we make it possible to for teachers to do more with the students they do have. They make it possible to develop stronger relationships with students. That requires a real commitment, on the part of the people who do have the resources.
But I think that is a commitment worth making. In my time in Ethiopia, I spoke to lots of teachers who are really passionate and excited and are using new teaching methods and being innovative. They have said to me how the numbers of students they have in the classrooms is going to make it very difficult to teach.
They have said they are going to try but I spoke to a teacher, who said he has 60 students in a class and another 120. This size makes it very difficult to do the job of teaching properly. So I would say, working at the highest level to look for resource allocations and figure out how we can continue to have all of our students in school and also have the smaller classes become the norm is something that is needed, at home and in Ethiopia.
When you look at the American flag in Ethiopia, what do you think it represents for the average Ethiopian?
That is a great question! I was asked recently what America stands for. I said America is working towards liberty and justice for all. You know that is our pledge, the pledge of our allegiance. And the people I was working with once said, do you think you can just say, America stands for liberty and justice for all. I said, I don’t think so.
Because that is our ideal and a beautiful ideal but we are not there yet. To be honest, with the ways which America is now; we do not have justice and liberty for all. I guess my hope would be, when people see the American flag, that one day, they will be able to say that flag stands for those ideals. I think we are working towards that. Teachers are working towards that. But I don’t think realistically, we are there yet.
How do you describe an American citizenship?
The first thing that comes to mind is this notion of freedom of speech which I think is something, I think, is being debated right now. How far freedom of speech goes and what we are allowed to say or not. But for me, what I hold dear is my freedom to express myself and to express what I feel and I know we sometimes take it for granted what is such a precious liberty we do have. But other than that, it’s a hard question to answer.
I grew up very privileged, as a white middle class American who never had to think about my citizenship. I guess that is a question I would like to ask non-American citizens what that represents for them. I would imagine it is fluid and it changes.
Despite what is seen on popular news, about the changing landscape of American politics and policies, there are millions of people attempting to move to the United States. To those who still want move, what advice do you have for them?
I would just say there are lots of toxic messages at the moment. There is a minority of people in America, who are saying that others are not welcome. I just want to say that, the majority of Americans welcome other people to our country with open arms. Because we do know, what it represents to others is a second a chance and an opportunity and that is what America should stand for.
It should stand for the statue of liberty, opening her doors and arms and so, despite messages people might see that they are not welcome in America; America welcomes people who want to come to our country.
When you were told you were headed to Ethiopia, what was your initial reaction?
When I was growing up, I learned very little about Africa. My white classmates and I, thought Africa was one city of starving people. These were the images of what we saw on television. We all thought Africa as a monolith, as one country where there is wildlife and that is it.
My students still believe that. They don’t know what Africa is like and how diverse it is. They don’t know there are big cities. So when I was chosen to come here, I did not know anything about this country. So visiting has been really great to dispel some of those stereotypes for me.
I do have a different perspective now and which I can bring back and talk about with my students. This is my second time in Africa. I previously visited South Africa.
You are now headed to a region – the Middle East – that is black and white for an American. You are either hated or loved in what remains a hostile society. What do you think your experience would be like?
I really don’t know. I am taking this journey one step at a time. So leading up to this trip, it was all about Ethiopia. I will now go home and prepare for my next trip. My hope is that, it will be like my Ethiopian trip and that my hosts will help me navigate and help me understand the intricacies of the history and culture; an experience where I can speak that universal language of education.
I say that because, education can really transcend our differences. Education can represent the hope and dream of what we have for the future.
You met lots of high school students in Ethiopia. What impression did they leave you?
Again, it’s this universal language of education. They reminded me of my students. They were smart, funny, creative and a little bit rebellious. They were wonderful. I loved working with them. That is something I am going to take back to my students. I am going to say to them, the kids in Ethiopia are not that different from you.