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Adrian Walker

What good is a teachers’ union that doesn’t care about great teaching?

Codman Academy’s Sydney Chaffee, shown during an event last month, was recently named the National Teacher of the Year.
Codman Academy’s Sydney Chaffee, shown during an event last month, was recently named the National Teacher of the Year.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Sydney Chaffee is a model schoolteacher: brilliant, fun, and a natural leader of both her students and her peers.

Those judgments aren't mine — the ninth-grade humanities teacher at Codman Academy in Dorchester was recently named National Teacher of the Year.

Chaffee has been honored at the White House and locally. But that seems to have meant nothing to her peers in the Massachusetts Teachers Association. At its recent convention, she was snubbed by the MTA, a development first reported by CommonWealth magazine.

The MTA voted down a motion to “publicly and formally congratulate” Chaffee on a voice vote. It isn’t hard to figure out why. She teaches at a charter school, and charters are anathema to the state’s biggest teachers union.

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I don’t begrudge the union its right to hate charters, though I strongly believe its position is wrong-headed. But petty feels like a mild word to describe its childish refusal to pass a symbolic measure honoring one of the best teachers in the country. Honoring a great teacher should not become some kind of litmus test. And yet it is.

The idea of recognizing Chaffee came from a retired Cambridge teacher named Peter Mili, a longtime member of the MTA. It was shot down after a brief debate on the floor — a debate that had nothing to do with Chaffee and everything to do with the union’s position on charter schools.

“I was disapponted that, as an organization of educators, we couldn’t for the moment put aside the charter school issue and national politics and just recognize this individual for her accomplishments and her work with children,” Mili told CommonWealth.

Mili may have been disappointed, but he shouldn’t have been surprised. The MTA has practically become a one-issue organization, raging against what it views as the corporate takeover of public education. That many charter schools outperform their conventional counterparts doesn’t seem to make any difference to its leadership; they are the enemy. Under the leadership of president Barbara Madeloni, the MTA successfully led the charge against the ballot question that would have expanded charter schools last year. But the union can’t stop fighting a battle it has already won.

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Through a spokeswoman, Chaffee declined to talk to me for this column. But the school’s head, Thabiti Brown, was happy to sing her praises. Brown nominated her for Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Her victory eventually led to her national recognition.

“She’s really thoughtful,” he said. “She’s one of the smartest people I know — not just in terms of intellectual smarts, but also in terms of emotional intelligence.

He noted her ability to captivate a room full of students with grace and humor. “She’s a performer and a poet and a writer. She deserves that honor.”

Charter schools are public schools, but operate with freedom from some regulations faced by traditional public schools.

In theory, one of the selling points of charter schools is that they can foster innovation. In reality, charters and conventional schools have become independent nations. Both sides have played a role in that division, but teachers’ unions have been particularly aggressive about guarding what they view as their turf.

Chaffee is believed to be the first charter school teacher ever named National Teacher of the Year. But by virtue of her affiliation, the MTA seems obliged to ignore her. That’s unfortunate, because it has nothing to do with education, or teaching children.

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“I’m interested in getting above the fray,” Brown said. “I have too many colleagues in the Boston public schools and the parochial sector who are interested in growing together, and we should spend our time working together.”

The MTA made a statement, but it was a dumb statement. A teachers union that doesn’t care about great teaching is just another interest group. Think bigger, MTA.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.