Mass. teachers union snubs National Teacher of the Year

This article originally appeared in Commonwealth Magazine

By Michael Jonas. 

SYDNEY CHAFFEE WAS WELCOMED to the White House last month. She was honored at an event in Boston by the governor and the state education commissioner. But the first Massachusetts educator ever named National Teacher of Year was given the cold shoulder by the state’s largest teachers union.

Delegates at the Massachusetts Teachers Association annual state convention last Saturday voted down a motion to “publicly and formally congratulate and recognize Sydney Chaffee” on receiving the award.

The motion to recognize a nationally-recognized classroom instructor from Boston would appear to be the most uncontroversial proposal that could be brought forward to a gathering of Massachusetts teachers. What turned the resolution into a contested issue at the convention is the fact that Chaffee teaches at a charter school.

Chaffee is a 9th grade humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, which seems to have everything to do with the teachers union turning down a call to pay tribute to her achievement.

Charter school teachers are generally not unionized, and that is the case at Codman Academy. It is believed to be the first time the National Teacher of the Year award went to a charter school teacher.

The Mass. Teachers Association has taken a strong stand against charter schools, including serving as the main funder of last year’s successful effort to defeat a statewide ballot question that would have raised the cap on charter schools.

The motion to congratulate Chaffee was put forward by Peter Mili, a retired Cambridge math teacher and longtime active MTA member. “I was disappointed 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,” said Mili.

He said people speaking against the motion raised everything from the fact that Chaffee taught in a charter school to concerns about national education policy under President Trump and Betsy DeVos, his education secretary.

Mili said he does not know Chaffee and was not trying to make any statement on the broader charter school debate that has roiled the education waters in the state. Mili said he had a “No on 2” lawn sign in front of his house during last year’s campaign and shared the union’s concern about charter school expansion.

Mili said the issue should be “not so much where she worked – the structure of the school she taught in – but the fact that she’s a teacher being recognized for really good work with Massachusetts children.”

Mili said he emailed MTA president Barbara Madeloni several times in the weeks leading up to the convention to urge that Chaffee be invited to address the annual gathering, but never got a response.

A spokesman for the MTA said Madeloni was not available to comment.

A year ago, Chaffee was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. In April, she was chosen for the national award, which is given annually by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Paul Toner, a former MTA president, said the union has always invited the state teacher of the year to offer remarks at the annual meeting. “It’s unfortunate that the politics surrounding charter schools led to this outcome,” said Toner. “Sydney is a teacher, not a politician. We should respect all of our teachers.”

Liam Kerr, director of the Massachusetts chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter organization that also advocates for increased funding for district schools, called it “middle-school-bully” tactics to shun Chaffee and not invite her to speak at the state convention.

Madeloni has staked out a hard line against charter schools and has also pushed for an end to the use of high-stakes tests in Massachusetts schools.

Although Chaffee was not invited by Madeloni to speak at the state convention, the MTA’s parent union, the National Education Association, has asked her to speak in June at its annual convention, which will be held this year in Boston.

“It is our tradition to invite the National Teacher of the Year to the annual meeting of the National Education Association regardless of whether or not he or she has been an NEA member,” NEA president Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.

Last month, García addressed the state teachers of the year from all 50 states, who were invited to Washington and honored at the celebration where Chaffee was recognized as the national winner.

“Sydney, we adore you,” García said, in a videotape of her remarks. “We all have the same heart that says teaching is not our job, it’s our cause. It’s a social justice cause. It’s how we intend to change the world.”

Paul Reville, the former state secretary of education, said the Mass. teachers vote was a sign of how out of touch the union’s leadership is with the real needs of students.

“MTA’s decision to disrespectfully dismiss the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year is just one more indication of MTA leadership’s obsession with quashing charters, choice, and stifling any reform that threatens to disturb the status quo,” Reville said. “The problem is that the status quo is still not working for so many students. This consistent opposition to change takes us backward while guaranteeing that inequities will persist.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said excellent teachers should be recognized no matter what type of school they are in.

“I support all teachers working to educate students in our city, regardless if they serve at a private school, charter school, or public school,” Walsh said in a statement. “As a Dorchester resident working with a Dorchester school, Ms. Chaffee embodies the strength of our communities, and represents the best of Boston.”

Chaffee declined to respond directly to the MTA vote. “I look forward to the opportunity to continue collaborating with and learning from all teachers this year to ensure that our students get the education they deserve,” she said in an email.

As National Teacher of the Year, Chaffee will take a leave from her teaching post in Dorchester and spend the year traveling nationally and internationally as a spokeswoman for the teaching profession.

Thabiti Brown, her principal at Codman Academy, also declined to address the MTA vote. Instead, he emphasized in an interview the degree to which teachers in the area around the Dorchester school work collaboratively to improve their skills and to aid students, regardless of whether they are in district or charter schools.

“It is way more the norm than not for colleagues across district and charter lines to work together,” said Brown. “To Sydney’s credit, she’s a teacher at the end of the day and she’s excited to tell the stories of strong teachers across the country. That’s why she’s a winner.”

Kerr, the Democrats for Education Reform leader, said teachers unions have long complained that charter schools are not fulfilling one of their original intents – to share best practices with district schools that they have developed under the more flexible structure charters operate with. It is ironic, he said, that the MTA would not have Chaffee come speak to their convention.

“The 110,000-member union has decided they’re worlds away from wanting to learn from the National Teacher of the Year,” he said. “They can’t even say, ‘good job.