Jahana Hayes Encourages Students to Find Their Passion

As the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, Hayes told the crowd of future teachers that they too can make a difference in their students’ lives

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Three years into her teaching career, Jahana Hayes found that she didn’t love it. Her students were learning, but they weren’t thriving, and she wasn’t enjoying teaching like she expected to be. After taking inspiration from a book by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hayes harnessed her passion for service learning and volunteering and passed that along to her students. Now as the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, she told future teachers at the School of Education they too can make a difference in their students’ lives.

“Figure out what your gift is, and multiply it over and over again. Kids will leave with this wealth of information and knowledge that will help them contribute to the world.”

Hayes spoke at two events at the School of Education organized by the Office of Recruitment and Retention for Underrepresented Students and INSPIRE Living-Learning Center. As a history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut, students who take her classes must agree to do service learning. Even though it’s outside of Hayes’s curriculum, she spoke with community and civic leaders and spent time learning about the issues her own students were facing.

“Students saw that I was interested in them, in their lives, in what they were doing, and they became more interested in what I was doing in the classroom. Kids don’t listen to people they don’t like or can’t trust. It’s us teaching each other. That’s not something I ever learned in my teacher preparation classes,” Hayes said.

As National Teacher of the Year, Hayes has spent her time traveling extensively, both in the U.S. and abroad. When speaking in Malawi, a man remarked to her that if she was the best teacher in the U.S., that must mean her students had the highest test scores. Hayes laughed as she told that story.

“Don’t ever limit yourself and the impact you make to test scores. That is not what education looks like,” she said. “That is not what we do. Kids have to learn. It’s got to mean something. Kids in my class work, and they expect to work hard, but it doesn’t have to hurt.”

As for her future plans, Hayes said while she’s received many amazing offers as National Teacher of the Year, she’s looking forward to going back to her classroom in Waterbury.