National Teacher of the Year Says Union Support Has Allowed Her to Soar

Waterbury high school teacher and National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes spoke at the NEA Representative Assembly July 7. Photo by Scott Iskowitz/NEA.

July 7, 2016

In addition to being an inspirational and dynamic teacher with a compelling story, National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes is also a proud union member. Addressing the 7,500 NEA members gathered for the last day of the NEA Representative Assembly Thursday, she told the educators, "I am able to soar because my union keeps me grounded."

Hayes, a history at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, knows all too well that teachers can accomplish more for their students when they join together and have the support of a union. She thanked CEA President Sheila Cohen, Waterbury Teachers Association President Kevin Egan, and her Waterbury colleagues for their support.

CEA President Sheila Cohen congratulated Hayes on her speech.

"That altruistic character trait that all teachers possess is often times exploited," she said. Hayes explained that her union ensures "I am treated like the professional that I am and my creativity is not stifled by mandates. My union advocates on my behalf and creates a structure that protects me from myself."

Hayes acknowledged that recently, "Much has been said and done to diminish the level of respect, worth, and dignity the public places on our profession."

Yet she reminded teachers that they still have tremendous power to inspire and influence the next generation.

"As a child everything I learned about school I learned at school. Teachers provided me with the support and encouragement to be a student. Teachers exposed me to a different world by letting me borrow books to read at home and sharing stories about their college experiences. Teachers challenged me to dream bigger and imagine myself in a different set of circumstances. I was oblivious to opportunities that existed outside of the projects where I grew up, but my teachers vicariously ignited a passion in me," Hayes said.

Waterbury teachers showed their support for their very own National Teacher of the Year.

"My teachers left such an impression on me and I knew that I too wanted to be a teacher," she continued. "Teaching is a noble profession and we have to bring that professionalism back. We must take back the narrative and ensure that this is the message we are sending at all times. When students look at us they see role models and someone they can be proud of."

Hayes said that her experience growing up in a poor neighborhood under challenging circumstances has given her a unique perspective into her students' lives.

"Every child is entitled to an educational experience that is rich and robust and reflective of their personal journey, no matter what community they come from," Hayes said.

"How do we make students believe that they are special and important and capable of anything they put their minds to? The answer is simple… show them that you care," she urged her fellow educators. "I don't remember much about the lessons that I was taught in school but I remember vividly the teachers who made me feel like they cared about me by making a personal investment in my success and gave me their best."

Waterbury Teachers Association members were so excited to hear Hayes address the NEA RA that they made up special t-shirts for the occasion.

Hayes knows that some students have not been celebrated often enough, and that feelings of failure can undermine students' potential.

"I strive to meet students where they are, and not dwell on where they should be," Hayes said. "I remember myself at various points in my journey and imagine how hopeless I must have seemed to the teachers who continued to work with me. They saw something in me and did not give up even when I didn't see anything in myself. 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."

Hayes concluded, "Continue growing, guiding and loving your students because you may have the next president, supreme court justice, doctor, lawyer, business owner, performer, volunteer, activist, or national teacher of the year sitting in your classroom."

Watch her speech below or read a transcript here.

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