Jahana Hayes

UB’s Jahana Hayes wins National Teacher of the Year

School of Education alumna is chosen as America’s top teacher.

Jahana Hayes ’14, an alumna of University of Bridgeport School of Education, has been named the 2016 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers for her ability to inspire at-risk students to break through the bounds of poverty and to seize academic and civic opportunities that have the power to transform lives.

The National Teacher of the Year (NTOY) Program began in 1952 and is the oldest, most prestigious national honors program that focuses public attention on excellence in teaching. The National Teacher of the Year is chosen from among the State Teachers of the Year by a National Selection Committee representing the major national education organizations. Each April, the NTOY is introduced to the American people by the President of the United States.

Hayes, who will be honored by President Obama at the White House on  May 3, will spend the year traveling throughout the U.S. and internationally to advocate on behalf of educators and students. She is expected to attend at least 150 events and to serve on national and state commissions and policy-advising bodies.

It’s a job Hayes, a mother of four, has unknowingly prepared for her whole life.

Hayes grew up and attended school in Waterbury, CT, where she now teaches history at John F. Kennedy High School. More than 46 percent of the school’s students live at or below the poverty line.

Like her students, Hayes is intimately familiar with the grind of poverty and the concomitant barriers it poses to education and opportunity. When her own elementary school teachers organized evening parent conferences, for instance, Hayes’s grandmother was unable to attend because she didn’t have a car to get to school and buses stopped running for the day.

And yet school provided a persistent beacon of hope for Hayes: She fondly recalls teachers who loaned her books to bring home or baked her a birthday cake. Their kindness and professionalism inspired Hayes to become the first in her family to attend college and be a teacher.

Hayes earned her Sixth-Year Degree from the University of Bridgeport in 2014. She quickly established herself as a leader in the School of Education for her insistence on viewing education from the perspective of students, not administrators.

“She was looking for ways to get parents involved who really were not yet involved,” said UB School of Education professor Gail Perilli, who taught Hayes in her Educational Leadership Class. “She wanted equality for all students.”

In addition to teaching government and history classes at Kennedy High School, Hayes chairs the Kennedy SOAR Review Board, which provides a “school within a school” for highly gifted students who apply to participate in its advanced courses.  She is a co-adviser of HOPE, a student-service club at Kennedy High that has raised thousands of dollars to support local Relay for Life cancer walks and to participate in Habitat for Humanity builds in New Orleans and Charleston.

Hayes said she encourages young people to volunteer because “with service, everyone is equal” so disadvantaged students can realize their value and purpose in the world.

It is of no benefit to anyone if a student achieves high grades and tremendous academic success if they have no desire or knowledge of how to help others,” she added in her National Teacher of the Year application.

Hayes’s path to becoming the 2016 National Teacher of the Year began when she was nominated for and won the John F. Kennedy Teacher of the Year and then the Waterbury, CT, School District Educator of the Year in 2015. She then won 2016 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year, prompting Kennedy’s approximately 1,300 students and colleagues to organize a massive surprise pep rally in the school gymnasium.

Kennedy High School student Syrenitee Kee, 17, explained Hayes’s popularity:  “The way she encourages her students to be the best—she really cares. It’s so amazing that she won.”

For UB’s most recent interview with Jahana Hayes, read the article in Knightlines.