How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.
Sydney Chaffee made headlines recently as the first charter school teacher to be named the national teacher of the year. Getting there, she says, was a continuous process of learning from others — including her students’ families.
A breakthrough moment: meeting with one of her more difficult students’ mothers.
“The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time,” Chaffee explained.
Chaffee has taught ninth grade humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. From introducing debate about the Puerto Rican debt crisis to comparing classrooms to colonies, she also relies heavily on storytelling in the classroom.
She talked to Chalkbeat about a few of her most memorable moments — and why hand gestures are key to her teaching.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Why did you become a teacher?
I wanted to inspire the same kind of curiosity and excitement about learning in other people that my own teachers had inspired in me. Plus, I loved school and figured becoming a teacher was the best way to never have to leave.
What’s something interesting about your physical classroom — something on the walls, for example?
I like for my classroom to be colorful and full of words. Right now, my favorite thing about my room is that my students and I have filled one window with colorful stars. On each star, a student wrote “kudos” for another student for their work in this year’s Poetry Out Loud recitation competition. Some of the kudos are for stellar performances or persevering through stage fright; others are for being supportive and empathetic peers. They’re posted as a reminder of what we can accomplish together.
Fill in the blank: I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Hands. I am a wild gesticulator. I don’t even notice I’m doing it most of the time, but whenever my students decide to impersonate me, their hands go crazy with big, dramatic gestures. So much of teaching is storytelling, and my hands help me tell the story.
Tell us a bit about a favorite lesson. How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson, recently, was a simulation of the Puerto Rican debt crisis that my student teacher and I co-designed. We wanted to help students understand some of the basic economic concepts so they could write about the crisis in a more informed way, but the issue is complex and confusing. We worked together to brainstorm ideas, draft a plan, test-drive it, and revise it. The final lesson, which my student teacher facilitated, was hands-on, engaging, and gave students a solid grasp of tricky content. And it was fun to teach, too.
Collaboration is such an important ingredient in strengthening our practice as educators. I was happy to have the chance to learn from my student teacher’s creative ideas; what we came up with together was so much better than I would have come up with on my own.
What’s your go-to response when a student doesn’t understand something critical?
I like to draw an analogy between what we’re learning and something students can relate to or easily picture in their minds. For example, when we read, early in the year, texts that question whether historians should use the verb “discover” in relation to Christopher Columbus (“Columbus discovered America”), some students have trouble understanding why this is controversial. I ask them to imagine that someone who had never been to our neighborhood before suddenly walked into the school and pronounced that they had “discovered” it, even though we were all already sitting inside and learning.
Or, in learning about colonialism, I do a simulation with students asking them to reimagine the classrooms in our school as separate territories and brainstorm ways that we might be able to get our hands on the resources that another territory possesses. Taking time to describe these concepts and make them tangible for students helps ensure that they “stick.”
What’s something you do to build relationships with students?
I hold them to high expectations, but I also joke around with them and am not afraid to be a little goofy in class. Being silly disarms kids and helps them open up to me so I can get to know them better.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a student who acted very “tough.” She left class all the time, crumpled up tests, argued. When her mother came in for a meeting, she called this student by an endearing nickname and spoke to her with such gentleness and empathy. She told her that her behavior was not OK, but she also probed to find out what was really going on.
That was such an invaluable learning moment for me. The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time. It reminded me that families know and love our students — their children — best in the world, and we have so much to learn from them about who our students really are.
I try to channel that mother now when I’m talking with a student who is really struggling.
What is the hardest part of your job?
This job is incredible and rewarding, but the work is never done. There is never a day where, as a teacher, I will close my laptop at the end of the day, put my feet up, and think, “Well, that’s settled.” There is always more work to grade, more lessons to write, more students to think about: How will I get this one to write a thesis? How will I help that one with reading informational texts?
It’s hard, but I’m not complaining. It is work that I love to do, because it challenges me and allows me to keep learning all the time. I get to reinvent my class constantly.
What advice would you give a teacher starting out next year?
Don’t be afraid to have other people come into your classroom and observe you. The more you can collaborate with your colleagues and get feedback on what’s happening in your room, the more you’ll learn and the more you’ll help your students grow.