Hopeful Teacher of the Year Speaks at Hopeless Convention
National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes spoke at the 95th NEA Representational Assembly on July 7, 2016. This teacher’s message to delegates gathered at the annual union convention was encouraging. In fact, it was about the only uplifting or positive part of the entire four-day meeting.
Hayes explained that she is the product of a school district where 100% of students receive free- or reduced-price lunches, the official measurement indicating an impoverished area. She said her childhood was lived where those “in poverty succumb to addiction and are surrounded by persistent violence.” She said that in her home there was “no discussion of college or higher education.”
Instead, she was surrounded by the “cycle of teenage pregnancy where a grandmother, mother, and a daughter were all parents before the age of 18.” Yet, Jahana Hayes rose out of that situation and became a successful teacher and role model.
For her success, Hayes credits her own teachers. She said:
My teachers made me believe that I was college material and planted a seed of hope. After becoming a teenage mother in high school I almost gave up on my dreams completely, but teachers showed me the many options that were still available if I continued my education.
About her own philosophy and manner of teaching, Hayes says, “I strive to meet students where they are, and not dwell on where they should be.” She continued, “Because of this, I celebrate every milestone, no matter how big or small and support students through the learning process because I know that where they begin does not determine where their journey will end.” She said that her teachers never gave up on her, even when she must have seemed “hopeless.”
What Hayes is describing is the American Dream. Her personal story shows that with hard work and support from a few others, even the most dismal beginnings can end up well for those with faith and hope. Millions of Americans started from nothing and have gone on to achieve successful and productive lives, despite initial hardships and a deck that seemed stacked against them. This can happen when there are hands willing to help, not handouts.
Hayes is a member of the NEA and she gave kudos to her union. She said, “They ensure that I am treated like the professional that I am and my creativity is not stifled by mandates.” Many may argue that the union doesn’t protect teachers in important ways and instead urges them to indulge in social experimentation rather than educating students. The union got one thing right at this convention full of politics and social justice rhetoric; that was inviting Hayes to speak.
This Teacher of the Year offered advice to other classroom teachers. She said, “I am what happens when a teacher chooses to ignore the obstacles and focus on the dream.” She continued,
I don’t know what drew you to this profession, but for me it was the knowledge that teachers have the transformative power to save lives. We are instruments of inspiration. Teachers are that stone of hope for so many students. A profound trust exists between us and our students. We have an enduring presence and make a lasting impact. Teachers are not visitors in the lives of students. You are somebody’s hero, and you don’t even know it. Don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Jahana Hayes is a social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut.