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.

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A Commitment to Every Child

Last month, I had the privilege of visiting a school recently recognized by the Department of Education as a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School. As a teacher, I was well aware of the high standards that the program requires of selected schools and the prestige associated with the National Blue Ribbon School program. Reading about the achievements of a National Blue Ribbon school is certainly impressive, but visiting one of these schools is a wonderful reminder of all the positive things happening in our nation’s schools.

Forestbrook Middle School, located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, serves more than 1,200 students. While the school’s motto of, “Excellence, Every Day, Everywhere” reflects what you find at Forestbrook, the school’s culture was perhaps best captured by a social studies teacher’s comment. The teacher said that he was motivated by the desire to “see every child grow,” and the collective commitment to this goal was apparent in each of the more than 20 classrooms I observed and in every conversation I had with adults and students.

To ensure the success of each child, the staff at Forestbrook has instituted a wide range of strategies and interventions. Two full-time instructional coaches assist teachers in analyzing student data from formative and summative assessments. As a teacher noted, “The entire point of evaluation and assessment should be to drive instruction,” and in planning sessions, I saw teams of teachers together crafting and developing instruction tailored to the academic needs of each student.

This data-driven instruction was bolstered by incredible use of technology to enhance instruction. Every Forestbrook student is assigned an iPad, which teachers use to create engaging learning environments and to gather real-time feedback on student understanding. The effectiveness of the technology integration is enhanced by a school culture that prizes and prioritizes collaboration, as exemplified by the redesign of the class schedule to provide space and time for teachers to engage in weekly planning by grade level and by subject area.

But more than anything, what makes Forestbrook an exemplary place to learn is that student success lies at the heart of everything teachers do. In a planning meeting, I heard a teacher comment that the driving force is not “ego, but in wanting to do what kids need.” This type of statement isn’t novel in education, but seeing it in the authentic commitment to every Forestbrook student’s success is a reminder of how powerful it can be when a staff and community rally to ensure that children receive the best possible education. The National Blue Ribbon program does a great job shining the spotlight on schools like Forestbrook, where the focus remains exactly where it should be every day in school …on the success of each child.

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

Applying for the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Program: Reaching Beyond My Walls for Students

Early in my teaching career I remember wishing other people would just “leave me alone” to do my job. I loved working with my students and was wholly committed to their success, but often felt like the non-instructional components of my job—professional development, staff meetings, and so on—kept me from doing my best as their teacher. As a result, I had little interest in the educational world outside of the four walls of my classroom.

In recent years, however, through some discussions at the local and state level, I have come to realize the limitations of this mentality. So, I was intrigued last year when a former student’s parent forwarded me information about the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship (TAF) with the U.S. Department of Education. In the past, I would have deleted the email, but I decided to submit an application. After several rounds of interviews, I was selected as a TAF for the 2015-2016 school year. Though only one quarter through my Fellowship year, I can now say that applying was one of the best professional decisions I have ever made.

I teach Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics, so the opportunity to learn and participate in the federal policymaking process as a TAF simply can’t help but enrich my instruction. Also, through my TAF Team, I get to work with some of the most thoughtful, passionate and brilliant educators I have ever encountered and with staff members at the Department whose dedication to students is both energizing and inspirational. Most importantly, however, I have come to realize the simple reality that in 2015 it is no longer possible for a teacher to wall off his or her classroom from outside influences. As a TAF, I have an opportunity to lend my voice and experiences to shape education policy in our country and to better understand the decisions that are made in Washington, D.C., versus the state capital in Columbia, S.C., or at the district office here in Richland School District Two.

Moreover, as a result of my work as a TAF, I am finding myself slowly letting go of some of the focus on “my students,” not for any lessor commitment to their success, but, rather, because I am realizing how ALL students are OUR students. Our collective success as a country does not depend on your students or mine, it depends on all students being prepared to lead and thrive in our future world. Their collective success requires me to share my voice and expertise beyond the walls of my classroom. For myself, I can’t envision a better way to do this than as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and I encourage other educators to consider taking that step beyond your classroom walls and apply.

Patrick Kelly is a teacher in Richland County School District Two in Columbia, S.C., and a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

U.S. Department of Education Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows are outstanding educators with a record of leadership in their professional communities, strong communication skills, and insights on education policy based in their school and classroom expertise. Applications for the 2016 cohort of Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows opened on November 17, 2015 and will close on December 14, 2015 at 11:59 PM ET. For more information about the process, please thoroughly review the Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellowship webpages.

The Importance of Rigorous Coursework for All Students: A Teacher’s Perspective

Patrick Kelly, a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, begins his eleventh year teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics.

Patrick Kelly, a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, begins his eleventh year teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics.

This week, I will be starting my 11th year teaching Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics, and I have seen during that time the importance of a rigorous high school experience in preparing students to succeed in college. That’s why I was excited to see the U.S. Department of Education’s recent announcement of $28.4 million in federal grants to help students access AP classes. These grants are used to help pay for low-income students taking advanced placement tests administered by the College Board, the International Baccalaureate Organization, and Cambridge International Examinations.

As the College Board noted in its 2014 AP Report to the Nation, students who experience success in an AP course are more likely to graduate college on time and earn higher GPAs. Beyond the numbers, I have seen the positive impact of rigorous coursework in the stories of my students.

One of my greatest joys each year is to receive emails, calls, and visits from former students, and they frequently note how well their AP coursework in high school prepared them for a collegiate learning environment. In addition, an overwhelming majority of my students have performed well enough on the AP exam to receive college credit, which, in turn, has given them increased freedom and a leg up in their collegiate studies.

I also know my students are uniquely fortunate, as my home state of South Carolina pays the fee for each student in an AP course to take the exam. The cost to take an exam is nearly $100, and, while the College Board provides a reduced fee for students with financial need, the cost for these students is still over $50. As a result, this fee becomes a major obstacle to accessing a rigorous curriculum for many students in the 38 states that don’t pay for AP exams.

Currently, over 20 percent of our nation’s school-age children come from households living in poverty, and, for these children, paying the fees to take even one AP exam is simply not financially possible. However, this inability to pay does not mean these children lack the ability to thrive and succeed in rigorous coursework. I have taught numerous students who were in poverty or homeless, and they excelled in their coursework and earned college credit via the AP exam just like their more advantaged peers.

By distributing The Advanced Placement Test Fee grants announced last week, the Department of Education is extending opportunity to thousands of students around our country.

In the 21st century, student access to rigorous coursework is an essential right to prepare students for the workforce, and programs like this one are an important step in the right direction. There is still more work required in order to provide students from underprivileged backgrounds with the types of academic supports and systems necessary to succeed in challenging coursework, but eliminating barriers to accessing rigor is an essential first step. The Department of Education’s efforts to provide that access to more students is exactly the type of initiative that will help us reach our nation’s common goal of producing “college- and career-ready” students.

Patrick Kelly is a teacher in Richland County School District Two in Columbia, SC and has been selected as a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.