She brings ideas from around the world to her classroom

Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 U.S. National Teacher of the Year, plans to start new traditions that she learned while visiting schools in the Middle East and Africa.

“When I was at Gordon College in Haifa, Israel, I was really inspired by their futuristic classroom,” said Chaffee, who has been teaching history and English in Boston for 10 years. She will reconfigure her classroom to offer students “flexible seating” so that they have more options about how they want to work. “I’d like to try it, even though it will require some shifts in how I set up my classroom.”

Haifa, facing the Mediterranean Sea, was one stop Chaffee made when she recently toured through Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Ethiopia as part of a U.S. State Department program. One topic that her peers learned more about: U.S. “charter schools,” like Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston, where Chaffee teaches.

As a charter school, Codman Academy is accountable to the same state assessments as other public schools in the U.S., but it has more autonomy to innovate and experiment, Chaffee said. Charter schools then have the responsibility to disseminate their successful innovations back into the traditional U.S. public school system, to help as many schools as possible implement them.

“It’s a two-way street,” Chaffee said, “I’m learning from my peers in traditional schools as much as they’re learning from me, and that’s how the educational system is healthiest, with schools that are operating differently and sharing best practices with one another in the best interest of our kids.”

Two women speaking to one another (Courtesy of Sydney Chaffee)
Sydney Chaffee, left, speaks with Hanan al-Hroub, the 2016 Global Teacher of the Year. (Courtesy photo)

Her travels took her to Tel Aviv, Israel; Jerusalem; Ramallah, in the West Bank; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, giving her opportunities to learn and share her experiences teaching in the U.S.

In Ramallah, she spent time with Hanan al-Hroub, a Palestinian primary-grade teacher who is the 2016 Global Teacher of the Year. “Although Hanan and I teach in different worlds, our love for teaching and our care for students make us kindred,” Chaffee said.

Chaffee was surprised when a man in Addis Ababa asked her the purpose of learning. “That question really struck me because it was one that I had never needed to articulate before,” Chaffee said. “I realized that for me a big purpose of learning is connection, and that’s what I was doing in Ethiopia,” she said, meeting with educators whose work “intersected immensely with mine.”

Woman holding award with people surrounding her applauding (© AP Images)
President Trump, right, accompanied by Vice President Pence, second from left, congratulates Sydney Chaffee, center. (© AP Images)

In her classroom in Boston, Chaffee focuses on themes of justice and injustice. “We look at the moments in history where people have faced injustice, and we examine how they have struggled for justice and defined justice in different time periods and places,” Chaffee said.

Chaffee said she enjoyed going to the Middle East and Africa to “talk to different kinds of people about the history of the place and the conflicts there. I’m going to bring a lot of that learning and those perceptions back to my classroom.”

This article was written by freelance writer Maeve Allsup.

What is a charter school?

A charter school is an independent public school governed by a “charter” or mission, allowing it more flexibility and freedom in its curriculum than what is allowed to standard public schools in the U.S.

The first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1992.

Today more than 3 million students are enrolled in nearly 7,000 charter schools in the U.S.