A Passion for Her Students’ Success: National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee

At the end of each school year, I use my final class to share a last lecture on things I learned from my students.  They are generally surprised by the concept of a teacher learning, but teachers are by nature learners, always seeking new opportunities to grow.

Recently, I had one of those opportunities when the 2017 state teachers of the year visited the Department of Education.  These teachers are wonderful representatives of the best talent in the teaching profession, and I gleaned so much from my discussions with these exceptional educators.  While they all come from diverse locations and experiences, they all exhibit core characteristics that all teachers can learn from.

These characteristics were apparent throughout a conversation with Sydney Chaffee, who was recently announced as the 2017 National Teacher of the Year.  The first thing that stood out to me about Sydney was her passion for her students.  She managed to always bring our discussion back to her students, and in doing so, her passion for their success was unmistakable.

This love of helping students was born in Sydney early in her life, as she talked fondly about the wonderful teachers she had during her childhood.  These teachers made learning, “feel so alive, like it was on fire,” and Sydney decided at a young age that she wanted to foster that same love of learning for students.

I asked Sydney what keeps her inspired in her work, and the quick answer was simply, “the kids.”  She spoke of how she teaches for “the moment,” the one where students gasp in wonder, make new connections, and “do things they thought they couldn’t do.”  Sydney perfectly captured the passion of great teachers for their students when she said, “the work is hard, but the results are beautiful.”

As a result of Sydney’s passion for students, the guiding principle of her approach to teaching is something that is true of every great teacher I know – a focus on developing relationships with her students.  She said that in her classroom, “relationships are at the center of everything.”

She wants her students to learn and grow, and it is her belief that learning requires a willingness to take risks.  As a result, relationships with her students form the bedrock of her pedagogy as she seeks to create safe places for her students that are grounded in the trust that can only develop through authentic care and concern for students as individuals.

Sydney also demonstrates the collegiality and professionalism of great teachers.  When I asked her about the experience of being selected as National Teacher of the Year, the first thing she wanted to talk about was how honored and humbled she was to be part of the group of four finalists for the award.  Instead of talking about herself, she wanted to talk about how she was in awe of her fellow teachers.

A large part of this excitement about her colleagues is grounded in another characteristic of great teachers – the desire to learn and grow as a professional.  The teachers of the year had nearly an entire week together in Washington, DC, and Sydney said one of her favorite moments was learning the history of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” from one of her fellow teachers during a bus trip.  She said it is also one of the reasons she is so passionate about teaching humanities, as she believes that the “answers to our problems” can often be found by learning about the past.

Finally, like all great teachers, Sydney is also constantly seeking to engage stakeholders in the work of bettering educational outcomes for all students.  She believes parents and guardians have a “critically important role in conversations about education,” and she hopes as National Teacher of the Year to encourage families to become as involved as they can in their community schools.

To her fellow teachers, Sydney wants to share the message that they “don’t have to be perfect all the time,” but should instead focus on working together to grow and continuously improve.  And she hopes teachers and families will be joined in their efforts by policymakers at all levels of government listening to students and teachers and spending real, meaningful time in classrooms.

Of all the lessons I learned from Sydney and the other teachers of the year, this final point made the deepest impression.  The task of making learning feel like it is “on fire” for students may start with great teachers, but it also requires the full commitment and engagement of all stakeholders to ensure educational excellence for every child.

Patrick Kelly teaches at Blythewood High School in Columbia, SC and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Photo at the top: Teaching Ambassador Fellow Patrick Kelly interviews National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee.

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