Disrespecting the Best of the Best

I want to congratulate a colleague of mine who was recently named the 2017 National Teacher of the Year. Sydney Chaffee teaches 9th grade humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. In honor of this recognition, she will take a year-long sabbatical to travel around the country to support public education and represent her school and her students.

Sydney, as her students call her, considers herself to be a risk-taker and a lifelong learner. In her National Teacher of the Year application, she wrote: “Education is powerful if educators take risks—on our students, on each other, and on ourselves. My mother took risks her whole life...My mother’s legacy is alive in my belief that without taking risks, we doom ourselves to stasis, to a life without discovery or the thrill of accomplishing the impossible. When smart, driven teachers are given time and space to collaborate, we can help all of our students in all of our schools succeed. We have a lot of work to do, but we can achieve so much for kids when we commit—together—to being simultaneously optimistic and daring.” I couldn’t agree more.

After learning more about Sydney, I am inspired by her passion and dedication to improving herself. One might think that she’s ready to rest on her laurels now that she’s made it to the pinnacle of the profession. After all, is there a higher honor for a teacher than being recognized as the best in the country? According to Sydney, there is. She would likely argue that developing relationships with her students and inspiring them to be agents of change is the best honor that she could receive. I know it sounds all mushy and feel-goody, but that’s the stuff from which great teachers are made. They’re not in it for the fame and certainly not for the money. Great teachers, at their core, believe in their students and the positive change they can make in society. Great teachers are great learners and are humbled by the fact that there is always a better way to do things. In an interview on a morning news show, Sydney mentioned that she has a pile of teaching books that she’s waiting to devour because she is on a lifelong quest to learn how to improve her practices. Sydney Chaffee will do an excellent job of representing the profession that I love.

I was invited to attend last year’s ceremony--not as a state teacher of the year--but as one of America’s Distinguished Educators. It was fantastic. Teachers, and many of their families, were invited into the East Wing of The White House and were greeted with wine and hors d’oeuvres that were prepared by White House chefs. Then, the band Fun warmed up the crowd by playing several of their cover songs. Following that, President Obama appeared with all of the state teachers of the year and gave a short speech about the importance of funding public education while minimizing standardized testing. Finally, he introduced the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes, who gave an inspiring speech that brought me to tears. You can go on YouTube and watch a video of last year’s event. It’s a nearly 27 minute video, which is, admittedly, about 12 minutes longer than most of his other National Teacher of the Year ceremonies.

Unfortunately, this year’s National Teacher of the Year ceremony was insultingly pared-down from what it was under Presidents Obama and Bush. The state teachers of the year--only them, not their families--were invited to the Oval Office for a brief ceremony that lasted almost three minutes. Then, they sang happy birthday to the First Lady. The teachers’ families were reportedly put in a hot room across the street in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Sydney Chaffee was not even allowed to give a speech. I guess that’s what we should expect from a president who has proposed a 15 percent cut in K-12 education and who nominated private school proponent Betsy DeVos to run the nation’s public schools. This year’s ceremony was a sad and disheartening way to honor professional educators who have dedicated their lives to improving this country’s future. It was a slap in the face to educators everywhere. Sydney Chaffee and the 54 other state teachers of the year deserved better.