Sydney Chaffee, 34, was selected the National Teacher of the Year in 2017. For the past decade, she has been on the faculty at the Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where she teaches ninth-grade humanities.
You are a Millennial who came of age in the digital era and now you’re teaching what some are calling the i-Gen, those who have never not known about smartphones and technology. Do you see differences in how your pupils learn and your own experience as a student?
For me, learning is learning. The ways students learn today and the ways students get excited about learning are really similar to the ways that I learned and the things that I got excited about. Students get excited when they can be hands on, when they're working on projects that they feel really matter to them or can make some impact on the world. When I was in school, those were the kinds of things that stuck with me as well. Teachers can put too much emphasis on the latest app or a website or gadget and say we want to use that in our classroom because it's really cool and that’s what kids like so I have to figure out how to use it. But what we need to remember is that at its heart, the work is the same work now in terms of how we teach kids as it was when I was in school.
Your generation is the largest of them all now, tempered by its unique time in history and culture. How do you view its responsibility not just to the next generation, but the rest of the world?
I think that millennials, in some ways, have gotten a bad name as being obsessed with technology and uninterested in being practical or preparing for the future. That’s led to some of my generation being misunderstood and misinterpreted and underestimated. In fact, my generation talks a lot about how we can work towards a better world. And when I think about the next generation, especially as a teacher, what I'm thinking about is, how do we empower them to work towards a better world in however they want to define that? I think this is a common theme for millennials—working to empower the next generation. Especially those of us who are teachers, we’re trying to equip kids to become the kind of adults who feel like they have agency and who can participate in a world that they have helped to create.
What are the personal qualities and professional skills that the next generation—those you teach—need to be better citizens?
I’m doing a lot of school visits and a common theme has kept coming up—from the teachers, the principals, and the kids: I asked some fifth-graders what advice they had for teachers and I expected that they would say things like, well, you shouldn't give too much homework or something like that. But instead, these fifth- graders were saying things like, well, teachers should make sure that they take breaks because it's really important that they take care of themselves. Or they should make sure that they take a deep breath. Or teachers need to make sure that they are really thinking about how everyone feels. I said it sounds to me like you're talking empathy. And they said, yes, you have to know how someone else feels. I believe empathy isn’t a quality that people either have or they don't have. It's actually a skill that we can help our students to cultivate. And I think if we are really focusing on empathy, then we can also help students build skills like collaboration, which will be increasingly important in the workplace.
What are the lessons from previous generations that you think are important to pass on and nurture?
One lesson that I have taken from my mother and from her generation is the lesson of standing up for what you believe in and not accepting a world where people are not treated equally. When I was growing up, my mother defined herself very clearly as a feminist and would talk to me as a young girl about what that meant. And when I think about what I want my students to understand and learn, it's very similar. I want them to understand what it means to stand up for something that you believe in and to really stand up for equality. You know, compared with my generation, we sometimes romanticize my mother and father's generation and the people who were really coming of age in the late '60s and '70s as being people who were protesting all the time, standing up for people's rights. But there was something to that. And whether it's completely accurate or not, it’s something that I'm trying to instill in my kids and trying to carry forward in my life as well.
Are there personal lessons you’ve taken to heart from someone older that have guided you?
My grandmother, at one point in her life, started to collect information about her family. She was making a family tree, collecting documents and clippings to make sure that the story of the family wasn't lost. And that's something that really resonated with me. And that's something that I've sort of taken up in my own life a little bit—to try to trace my family back and figure out our stories and roots. I think that's really fascinating. And it's something that I hope my own daughter will take on as well in understanding where have we come from, who are we, and what's our story. There's something really special to discovering a story from the past that helps you explain who you are today. There's so much that we can learn from history. And I guess that's why I'm a history teacher.