Polly Chatfield: The Gifts of Teaching and Giving

Polly Chatfield is teacher, poet and winner of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for her topic "Patterns of Simile in The Divine Comedy". I met her during the 2016 Merrill Speakers Series at the Commonwealth School.

For over twenty years, Polly taught various subjects at Commonwealth. Associate Producer of Feisworld, Adam Leffert, fondly recalls Polly as one of his favorite teachers of all time. He is not alone. Decades after graduation, many of Polly's students still walk up to her at the school, on the street and express how she changed their lives, for the better. I met a few of he students including a Senior Producer from the New York Times and a Judge at the US Circuit Court.

If you didn't know anything about the Commonwealth School (Boston, MA), they are an independent, coed day school for grades 9 through 12, enrolling about 150 students in four grades. They are "academically rigorous, catering to bright, curious students who enjoy intellectual adventures in classes often taught at a college level".  With nearly 75% of graduating seniors recognized as National Merit Finalists, Semifinalists, or Commended Students, and some 35% recognized by the AP Scholars program, Commonwealth School is one of the most recognized and successful private schools in the country.

As an outsider looking in, I had always been curious with the Commonwealth community - so small yet it creates such synergy decades after people already graduated from the school. At this point, I've had a long standing history with the Commonwealth School, interviewing a few graduates including Van LeJulia Holloway and Anne Morgan Spalter on Feisworld Podcast. Van and Julia are both actively involved in the Alumni Committee at Commonwealth alongside Polly.

Polly took us to so many places in this conversation, including her passion for volunteering at different organizations, including an after school program where she teaches underprivileged children how to read and write.

If you like this story, you might find a few others that interest you on Feisworld. I'm currently putting in some more effort in building an online community - hop over to Facebook.com/feisworld and you'll see updates from a couple of times a week.

Show Notes:

  • [07:00] Polly’s origin story (she has not shared with many others)
  • [08:00] Adam's memory of Polly as a high school student at Commonwealth School
  • [13:00] Polly on the "Mermaid" story-telling session (scroll down to watch the video)
  • [15:00] Polly shares her summer stories back in 1950s
  • [17:30] What made Polly decide that she wanted to be a teacher, and a great teacher?
  • [25:00] What was Polly's family dynamic raising 7 children under one roof?
  • [28:00] What was it like at Commonwealth back in the 1960-1970s?
  • [33:00] What does Polly think of her role as a teacher who can influence and change the path of future adults?
  • [34:00] How did Polly’s teaching impact Adam in his adulthood?
  • [42:00] What does teaching mean to Polly?
  • [48:00] What’s Polly's opinion on the generational shift that happened in the recent years?
  • [49:00] How did Polly manage to teach highly intellectual students from highly intellectual and powerful families?
  • [49:30] What are some of the beliefs Polly had to be a successful teacher?

Favorite Quotes:

  • [36:00] ‘To see people’s faces light up when they discover something on their own, it’s just wonderful’
  • [41:00] ‘Something has been lost since, it is one’s duty if you have either the mean or the time, to serve, to give, if they can. If I’m only for myself, what am I?’
  • [42:00] We are bound, and not only to ourselves and to those close to us and to humanity, but we are bound to honor this earth, to care for our planet…’
  • [48:00] ‘The greatest gift is to be able to give. It’s just huge…’
  • [50:00] ‘At the bottom of it all, you really have to love two things: more importantly than the subject is the kid. You have to love them all, and to give them a sense that they can value themselves, you have to value them first.’

"The Mermaid" presents Polly Chatfield

One of the stories shared during "The Mermaid," a storytelling event presented by the Commonwealth School Alumni/ae Association in November, 2014, at the Burren in Somerville, MA.

Special thanks to Janetta Stringfellow for introducing Polly to Feisworld Podcast.

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