National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee On How “All Teachers Can Be Leaders”

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Sydney Chaffee recently was named National Teacher of the Year, but she doesn’t think she’s peaked yet. “As teachers, we always want to be better,” she says. And one way Chaffee does that is by taking on leadership roles that allow her to collaborate closely with her peers.

In the 10 years Chaffee has spent teaching—nine years of which have been in her current role as a Humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, MA—Chaffee has appreciated having opportunities to improve her practice through collaborating with her colleagues. At her school, she chairs the Humanities department team and has led professional development for her teammates. She also is part of both a grade-level team and more informal teams—such as an ad-hoc group that formed to discuss the importance of trauma-informed teaching. “These team structures allow us time to be with our peers and reflect,” says Chaffee. “Our teams are led by our colleagues, and so it feels much easier to talk about the things you’re struggling with in your classroom, because they’re your peers.”

Another way Chaffee has stepped up to lead improvement in her school is by taking over the school’s weekly Community Circle—a time when all students in the school come together to share news, discuss important issues, celebrate progress. “The principal used to run it, but he took the risk of giving up the reins and letting us teachers lead on it,” Chaffee recalls. “We overhauled it, and now it’s much different—and it’s all because our principal saw it as a good opportunity for us to lead.”

Now, as National Teacher of the Year, Chaffee is a leader for the entire teaching field—and she wants to see more teachers exercise their leadership skills, too. “All teachers can be leaders,” she says. “Someone in their first year of teaching can be considered a leader. When we open up our classrooms to each other and share best practices—that’s leadership. It’s just a more liberating way to think about it.”

What advice does Chaffee have for teachers who are interested in taking on leadership roles? “Form relationships with folks you consider to be leaders and make them your mentor,” she says. “Find out how they got to that place of leadership, and look for ways to share leadership with them. If someone is leading a professional development, ask whether you can help them plan it.”

Chaffee also thinks it’s important for teachers to feel confident and empowered to take risks when it comes to leading. She notes that when she first took on her role as a Teach Plus Policy Fellow she felt intimidated and unqualified, but she soon realized that it was the “perfect place” for her. “I knew that the only way I could learn and grow was to take that risk of trying out a new role,” she explains.

As Chaffee settles into another new leadership role—as National Teacher of Year—she’s focused on collaborating with her peers as well as with a group that she feels is too often overlooked as leaders: students. “Schools should be centered on students,” says Chaffee. “After all, they’re the people with the most power in the building, and if we’re going to move schools forward, students should be involved in that work.”