Teaching Profession

Conn. High School History Teacher Named 2016 Teacher of Year

By Madeline Will — April 28, 2016 3 min read
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Jahana Hayes, a veteran high school history teacher, has been named the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.

Hayes, who has taught for 12 years, was announced as the 65th winner of the national prize today on CBS This Morning. She has been a history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn., for the past 10 years. She is the eighth history teacher to win the award.

On CBS This Morning, Hayes said her passion for education stems from her own disadvantaged background. She was a teenage mother in high school and was witness to a “cycle of drugs, welfare, and abuse” in her family.

“Teachers exposed me to a different world by letting me borrow books to read at home and sharing stories about their college experiences,” she wrote on her application. “They challenged me to dream bigger and imagine myself in a different set of circumstances.”

Now, as a teacher in an urban public school district in the city where she grew up, Hayes said she knows her “role doesn’t end at the classroom.” She tries to build personal connections with her students to encourage them to achieve their goals—which, as she noted on her application, doesn’t always include college.

“Students have to learn to be their best selves and pursue their own dreams even if higher education is not their best option,” she wrote.

Hayes said she is proudest of her influence beyond the classroom. She has encouraged students to participate in service projects and said on CBS This Morning that she plans to use her year as National Teacher of the Year to promote service learning.

“I believe that it doesn’t matter how bright a student is or where they rank in a class or what colleges they have been accepted to if they do nothing with their gift to improve the human condition,” she wrote on her application. “I try to teach students that we are all obligated to help others and improve society.”

Hayes told Education Week Teacher that service learning is “that much more important” for students in a school like hers, where 76.2 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. “These kids are reminded that they too can be givers,” she said, adding that she ties service projects back into the curriculum and focuses on civic awareness.

During her year-long tour, she said she is eager to focus on elevating the teaching profession, which has been struggling to attract new teachers in certain areas.

“I think we need to do a better job of telling the good stories and sharing the positive things that are happening,” Hayes said. She also wants to expand teacher recruitment to include minorities and people of color (a demographic that has been underrepresented in the nation’s teaching corps).

Hayes was selected from among 56 state teachers of the year by a national selection committee composed of representatives from 15 national education organizations, organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers. (As my predescessor Ross Brenneman noted, for possibly the first time ever, the majority of this year’s finalists, including Hayes, were teachers of color.) Last year, the honor went to Shanna Peeples, a high school English teacher from Texas.

A ceremony honoring Hayes, the finalists, and other state teachers of the year will be held on Tuesday at the White House.

Image courtesy of Waterbury Public Schools

More National Teachers of the Year:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.