High school history teacher Jahana Hayes tries to help students apply the knowledge they glean at school to helping others through community service and cultural awareness. With this teaching mentality, it is no surprise that she was chosen as National Teacher of the Year on Thursday.
“It was just surreal,” Hayes, 44, told ABC News today. “I was kind of frozen for a minute.”
Hayes teaches at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut, the city where she grew up as a child. “It’s a very unique place,” she said. “I don’t think I would’ve been the same type of teacher somewhere else. My investment factor is triple what it should be.”
As a high school student and new mom, Hayes said she was susceptible to a “cycle of drugs, welfare and abuse that persisted in my family,” in her application for the award.
“Teachers exposed me to a different world by letting me borrow books to read at home and sharing stories about their college experiences. They challenged me to dream bigger and imagine myself in a different set of circumstances,” she wrote.
Now, Hayes, who has taught at Kennedy for 10 years, is doing the same for her students, helping them see opportunities and goals they wouldn’t have been able to imagine otherwise.
She stresses the importance of community service and has her students plan and organize different service projects, such as Habitat for Humanity builds, autism walks and food pantry donations. She wants to show her students that the lessons learned in class relate to their community and the rest of the world.
“When I ask them to do critical thinking or writing assignments, they say they can’t do it. But then I talk to them about their service projects and they realize, ‘Wait, I’m already doing it,’” Hayes said. “It’s so cool. They don’t even realize they’re exercising democracy.”
A panel representing 15 renowned education organizations selected Hayes out of 55 applicants. She will be recognized by President Barack Obama at the White House in a ceremony on Tuesday.
“To be the National Teacher of the Year requires not only pedagogical precision, but also the ability to connect to the hearts and minds of a school community,” Waterbury Superintendent Kathleen M. Ouellette said in a press release.
But Hayes says the recognition is not solely about her. “I don’t care how smart you are or how much you know, it’s what you do with that information and how you help others,” she said.