Massachusetts' new teacher of the year credits her mother with inspiring her to take risks and never stop learning.
"On my first day of kindergarten, my mother dropped me off at school," Sydney Chaffee, said Tuesday as she accepted the honor amid cheers from students and colleagues at Codman Academy Charter Public School. "And then she got back in the car and she drove herself to her first day of college, because she decided to reenroll in college after 20 years away."
Chaffee, 33, a ninth-grade humanities teacher at the Dorchester school, becomes the first teacher at a Massachusetts charter school to win the honor, state officials said. She will be the state's candidate for the National Teacher of the Year Program.
"She's an amazing educator," Codman Academy principal Thabiti Brown said after the announcement. "The thing that's most beautiful about her work ... is that she doesn't think she's very good. She's one of those folks that just is always working to get better."
Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said the award shows that in the 20 years charter schools have existed in Massachusetts, the taxpayer-funded but independently run schools have become an important part of the state's public education system.
"It seems like another threshold that the charter school movement has now crossed over into respectability," Kenen said.
Chaffee has taught English and social studies at Codman Academy since 2007. At the school, she has mentored student teachers; served as humanities department chairwoman; overseen a weekly, student-led assembly; and run the school's partnership with the Huntington Theatre Company.
In an interview after the announcement, which came on National Teacher Appreciation Day, Chaffee said great teachers are dedicated to lifelong learning and building strong relationships with students. But she was reluctant to take too much credit for herself.
"This award is really is humbling and makes me think about all the ways that I am just part of a community of great educators," she said.
Mitchell Chester, the state's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said Chaffee's dedication to her own ongoing learning impressed him when he interviewed her for the award.
"She learns from students. She learns from fellow faculty members," Chester told the crowd at the ceremony. "She related to me how your feedback, students . . . helps her figure out what she's doing well and what she could be doing better."
Candidates for teacher of the year were nominated by students, parents, administrators, and others and narrowed by a selection committee to three finalists for the honor.
The other finalists are Kathryn Contini, a sixth-grade teacher at Blanchard Memorial School in Boxborough, and Mary-Margaret Mara, a prekindergarten teacher at Worcester's Chandler Magnet School.
Senior Latanya Simpson, 18, said that from the time she heard that Chaffee was in the running for the award, she was convinced she would win.
What makes Chaffee special, Simpson said, is the personal attention that she pays to each student.
"She connects with our students," Simpson said. "She just doesn't teach to you. She makes sure that you're understanding. . . . She really makes sure that we know what we're learning instead of moving on to the next topic.''
A native of Saugerties, N.Y., Chaffee lives in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester with her husband, Matt Minton, and their 20-month-old daughter, Zoe. Minton said the couple play with Zoe each day after school, and then Chaffee does schoolwork after putting the toddler to bed.
"She works in a job where you can really make a difference in people's lives," Minton said Tuesday. "So to get this kind of award for being able to make that kind of a difference is just a huge deal. So I'm super-proud of her. . . . She works so hard, and she deserves it so much."