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White House Honors Waterbury Native As 2016 National Teacher Of The Year

Jahana Hayes, 2016 National Teacher of the Year
Cassandra Basler/WSHU News

Jahana Hayes teaches history at Kennedy High School. More than that, Hayes says she teaches empathy. Hayes tells WSHU's Cassandra Basler how growing up in public housing projects in Waterbury, Connecticut, helped her become 2016 National Teacher of the Year.

Hayes says she wasn't raised in a typical household. 

"It wasn't uncommon for me to wake up and eat breakfast with one set of grandparents and come home for dinner across the way at the other grandparents," Hayes says. "That doesn't mean my mother wasn't around. It was just a different family structure where the whole extended family took care of each other."

The City of Waterbury makes headlines for crime, blight and economic hardship. Hayes says those negative stories don't capture what she loves about her hometown or her students.

"I know what that feels like to be ashamed to say your address," she says, "I recognize that that has molded me into the person that I am, but when you're 10, 12, 14, and you're in it, it's really hard to see that far down the road." 

Hayes says she organizes community service projects to give students some perspective.

"Waterbury is very connected," Hayes says, "There's this sense of pride, even when you are told that there is no reason to have pride, it's there."

Helping Out People Everywhere, or HOPE, is the program Hayes runs that helps students tap into that sense of pride for Waterbury. Hayes says she sees even her more challenging students transform when they give back to their community. She remembers volunteering last year for the Citywide Front Porch Project to spruce up neighborhoods with a fresh coat of paint and flowers. 

"Some of the kids that went with me were some of the most difficult kids in this building," she says, "You have no idea how proud of themselves they were. They scraped the paint off the building, they painted the porch."

When Hayes showed her school principal a picture of the students volunteering, she says he asked how she convinced them to do it. Hayes says it was as simple as inviting the kids to get involved.

"Sometimes that kid who has discipline or behavior problems, they never hear about how good they are or how good they can be, but that same kid can paint a porch or help me carry supplies or walk at Relay for Life," Hayes says, "So I make sure I tell them how proud I am of them."

On April 28, Hayes was chosen out of 55 teachers from across the country by the The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a national nonpartisan group of school administrators. Hayes stood out for her helping students realize their dreams outside of academics and encouraging them to give back to their community.

President Barack Obama will honor Hayes on Tuesday. Over the next year, she'll tour the country talking about improving education and recruiting more students to become teachers in their hometowns.

"I think that's the kind of students we want to graduate: citizens. Not just people who can move out of their parents' house and pay their own bills," Hayes says, "I think that's the kids of America I want to see."

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