The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) runs a program to find and honor the most exceptional teachers in the country. This year the National Teacher of the Year is Jahana Hayes, who always wanted to be, but never thought she could be, a teacher herself.
Hayes was raised in a community drowning in poverty, drug use, and violence in Waterbury, Connecticut, a decaying industrial city. But school was her happy place, and she told her instructors that she would go to college one day.
She became pregnant at 17, but her teachers surrounded her with support and helped her continue her educational journey.
She finished high school and enrolled in a community college, and after that, completed her coursework with a four-year degree. Finally, her dream came true, and she was a high school history teacher in the town where she grew up.
Emma Brown of The Washington Post reports that Hayes has worked at Waterbury's John F. Kennedy High School for a decade, with an emphasis on giving her students the same passion, confidence, and hope that she once received from her teachers. She encouraged her pupils to give back to their communities by volunteering and joining service programs.
Hayes, 43, will be honored with a ceremony at the White House and then will travel nationwide on a paid sabbatical as an envoy for the teaching profession. Hayes wants to tell teachers to remember that they can have powerful, valuable impacts on students' lives.
"I really think that we need to change the narrative, change the dialogue about what teaching is as a profession," she said in an interview. "We've spent a lot of time in the last few years talking about the things that are not working. We really need to shift our attention to all the things that are working."
She also wants to remind teachers that when they give students a chance to help other people, young people are empowered.
Another message she will be sharing as she travels throughout the US is the need for more teachers of color in schools across the country. She added that most of the teachers she had when she was in school lived outside the community where her school was located. Seeing a teacher who was similar to her and shared her cultural history would have been a real boost, she shared.
A determination committee made up of representatives from 15 national education associations chose four finalists in January. Hayes was selected after lengthy interviews with all the finalists, writes the Hartford Courant's Kathleen Megan.
Over the years, Hayes has volunteered along with her students to assist Habitat for Humanity, to clean porches in Waterbury, and to raise money for autism and cancer research.
The CCSSO writes on its website that it identifies exceptional teachers in the US, recognizes their outstanding work in their classrooms, sends them on a year of professional learning, strengthens their voices, and encourages them to engage in policy discussions at both the state and national levels.
"I want so badly to change the dialogue that is surrounding teaching as a profession and remind people that wonderful things are happening in American public education," she said. "Teachers are not visitors in student lives. We are an enduring presence."
The other four finalists, writes Linda Conner Lambeck for the CTPost, were from Washington State, California, and Oklahoma.
Three other teachers from Connecticut have won the national title — Dorothy Hamilton, a social studies teacher at Milford High School, won in 1953; LeRoy Hay, an English teacher at Manchester High School won in 1983; and Anthony Mullen, a special education teacher in Greenwich, won in 2009.