At John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, it does not surprise students that social studies teacher Jahana Hayes is being honored as the new Connecticut Teacher of the Year (TOY).
“She’s amazing. She gets us to be the best we can be, reminding us that we have great value. Failure is not an option. She pushes us to do even better,” said Gaaiya Hunter, a senior, who is applying to five colleges with plans to be a nurse practitioner.
Junior DeAndre Carty plans on college, too, with a career in criminal justice. “Mrs. Hayes was always there for me during difficult times. She helped me get through things and do my best in school. She lights up every day.”
“I see a little bit of myself in each one of my students,” Hayes said. “Education is a catalyst to find our best selves.” Hayes was educated in the Waterbury public schools, where she said excellence happens every day.
Looking out at an assembly of hundreds of her students as well as dignitaries from across the state, Hayes began to sum up the job of a teacher when students spontaneously joined her. The job is “to produce conscientious and productive members of society,” the students and teacher proclaimed in unison.
Obviously, it is something of which Hayes reminds her students often. Hayes said she hopes to inspire more young people to consider a profession in teaching.
“I want to remind people that this is a noble profession and we should celebrate it,” Hayes said. “We should also encourage more young people to go into teaching and encourage veteran teachers to be re-energized about the amazing work that they do.”
Kennedy High School student Allyssa DiGiovancarlo had Hayes as a freshman when her confidence was wavering. “She believed in me and what I could do. I’ve kept that mentality with me all through high school, and today I am proud of my class ranking,” said DiGiovancarlo, now a senior.
On her selection as TOY from an urban school district, Hayes said she hopes it will “change the narrative.”
She said she loves being a teacher, and commended the collaboration and enthusiasm of her teaching colleagues in Waterbury. In her application to be named TOY, Hayes wrote, “Being constantly faced with negative media perceptions surrounding teaching practices and a perceived lack of accountability makes me much more determined to be vocal and supportive of teachers and teaching as a profession.”
Hayes emphasized that to improve teaching “there must be accountability measures in place. But they cannot be limited to standardized test scores.” Hayes said that all stakeholders must look at non-traditional ways of evaluating student progress that does not limit the process to test scores.
According to the new TOY, her students have to balance life’s challenges with the demands of school. “Education is the great equalizer,” she said.
It is widely acknowledged that teachers touch tomorrow by educating future generations. “Thank you for being the epitome of the art of touching tomorrow,” said CEA President Sheila Cohen at today’s Kennedy High School Assembly honoring Hayes. Cohen added that the feeling of pride and joy among Hayes’ students was palpable, saying that the new TOY is “an amazing and wonderful woman.”
Kevin Egan, the president of the Waterbury Teachers’ Association, said that Hayes is wonderful. “She’s an inspiration and makes us so proud to be teachers,” he said.
Kennedy High School Senior Lynadia Whiting said, “Mrs. Hayes would give her last dollar to a student who needed it.”
Hayes’ career as an educator goes back 13 years with the most recent 11 years in Waterbury. In the last decade, she has taught World History, Roots of American Citizenship, U.S. History, Civics & Geography, and African American History.
Hayes’ role as a social studies teacher extends beyond the walls of her classroom and into the community where she encourages her students to be active in projects that help their neighbors and improve the world around them.
In addition to her teaching duties, Hayes has served for seven years as the lead teacher for the district’s after-school programming, and she has worked as part of a team on minority teacher recruitment strategies for the district. Hayes mentors new teachers and is working to create a districtwide teacher mentor program.