At Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester, Sydney Chaffee likes to put the spotlight on her students during a weekly schoolwide assembly — having them write the scripts, act out the skits, and fully take charge of an event that is integral to the Codman’s identity.
But on Thursday morning, in the midst of school vacation week, it was Chaffee who stepped into the spotlight, with the announcement that she had been named National Teacher of the Year, making her the first Massachusetts educator to receive the top award in teaching.
Chaffee’s selection made history in another way: She appears to be the first charter-school teacher to win, although a handful of those from alternative, magnet, and private schools have received the honor, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers, a professional organization that runs the 65-year-old competition.
“I feel incredibly proud and humbled,” Chaffee, 34, said after the announcement. She credited the teachers she had growing up in Saugerties, N.Y., for inspiring her to follow in their paths.
“They set me on fire with learning,” she said. “They made it exciting, and I wanted to learn all the time. So I decided to become a teacher.”
Chaffee, a high school humanities teacher whose lessons focus on the intersection of history and literature, beat out more than 50 teachers from across the United States and its territories. The other finalists came from California, Wisconsin, and Maryland.
In a state like Massachusetts, which routinely ranks first in the nation on state standardized tests and is known to have many of the best public schools in the country, bringing home the top honor was a long time coming. The state came close to winning four previous times when it landed teachers in the final round.
Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts’ commissioner for elementary and secondary education, said Chaffee exemplifies the kind of excellence in teaching he sees taking place across the state.
“What strikes me most about Sydney is her humility and willingness to try a variety of ways to advance her students’ growth,” Chester said in a statement. “Where others might experience obstacles or feel discouraged, Sydney seeks opportunities to learn from her students and colleagues.”
Chaffee will finish out this school year at Codman Academy before embarking on a year-long tour across the country, where she will talk and listen to teachers and share best practices, as part of the national award.
She intends to bring attention to the need for teachers to take risks to help their students excel in the classroom and wants to “participate in a national conversation on how education can be a tool for social justice and empower students to stand up for themselves and create change.”
“For me, it make sense to do everything I can to help students and teachers to be leaders,” she said.
Thabiti Brown, the head of school at Codman Academy, said he has no doubt Chaffee will be successful in her national role. “This honor couldn’t happen to a better educator,” Brown said. “For many years, she has been a guiding light at our school.”
Brown noted that Chaffee is a department chair and leads strong teacher-training efforts. She also is adept at teaching social justice to students, he said, and colleagues and students seek her out for counsel.
Chaffee, who earned a degree in women’s history and writing from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., in 2005, came to Boston a little more than a decade ago and worked at the nonprofit Citizen Schools, an afterschool program.
Two years later she joined Codman Academy, an independent charter school that operates inside the Codman Square Health Center and serves 360 students in kindergarten through Grade 12. Nearly all the students are black or Latino and more than half come from economically disadvantaged households that receive government assistance.
Latanya Simpson, 19, who graduated from Codman last year, said Chaffee encouraged her to do poetry competitions and theater and gave her advice on how to approach other teachers when she had problems in their classes.
“She didn’t stop at being a teacher,” she said. “She was a mentor, too, and that’s how she was with all her students.”
One of Chaffee’s defining moments was leading the effort to overhaul the school’s weekly assembly, which had turned into a drab affair of announcements and a few speeches. It is now a lively event run by a student club she oversees. Each week, the students come up with new skits and map out the format, choosing everything down to the music.
Chaffee also leads the school’s longtime partnership with the Huntington Theatre Company, which teaches acting to students.
“She finds leverage in the classroom by giving other students the spotlight,” said Brendan O’Connell, principal of the academy’s upper school. “She puts the students to work and gives them access to the richest materials. She creates an environment for learning rather than teaching in the traditional sense.”
On the first day of school, her lessons on “How to Think Like A Historian” begin by challenging students to agree or disagree with statements like “Christopher Columbus discovered America.” From there, students learn to analyze text for bias, question sources for reliability, and make recommendations on how the school should teach Columbus, according to the application she submitted for the teacher of the year award.
Chaffee was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year last May. She lives in Dorchester with her husband and 2-year-old daughter.
The national selection committee said Chaffee rose to the top because of her “astounding depth of knowledge about the many issues facing students and teachers, and upholds others in her work.”
The committee noted that “Sydney is optimistic but honest, humble but direct, and puts students at the center of everything she does.”