Jahana Hayes, a teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn., was named the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. (Waterbury Public Schools)

Jahana Hayes always knew she wanted to be a teacher, but she didn’t always believe she could be one.

She grew up surrounded by poverty, drugs and violence in the fading industrial city of Waterbury, Conn. But she loved school, and her teachers told her she could someday go to college. Even when she became pregnant at 17, her teachers refused to give up on her. They showed her how she could continue her education.

She graduated from high school and seven years later enrolled in a community college. She went on to earn a four-year degree, and then she realized her dream: She became a high school history teacher in the same town where she grew up.

For the past decade, she has worked to give her students at Waterbury’s John F. Kennedy High School the same hope and passion and confidence that her teachers once gave her. She has pushed them to think beyond the classroom, contributing to their communities through volunteer and service projects.

And she has been so successful that on Thursday she was named the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.

“Jahana is a shining example of an educator who cares about her students and has mastered her craft,” wrote Vince Schaff, a parent at Kennedy High, in support of Hayes’s application.

Schaff wrote that the honor would be nice for Hayes, but that her real reward is the thousands of lives she has helped change through teaching and mentoring. “And that has no equivalent,” he wrote.


Jahana Hayes teaches history at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn. (Photo courtesy Waterbury Public Schools)

Hayes, 43, will be honored at the White House next week and then spend a year traveling the nation as an ambassador for a profession that has been battered and bruised by bitter debates over education policy. She said she wants to help remind Americans that teachers have the potential to be powerful, positive forces in their students’ lives.

“I really think that we need to change the narrative, change the dialogue about what teaching is as a profession,” she said in an interview. “We’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years talking about the things that are not working. We really need to shift our attention to all the things that are working.”

She also wants to help remind schools and teachers about the power of community service. Her students regularly participate in fundraisers for cancer and autism research and they volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

Serving others shows her students that no matter how difficult their own background, they can help people, she said. “They’re empowered. I see students who lack confidence, who have no self-efficacy, who really think that they have nothing valuable to give — I see them emerge as leaders. Over time I see them wanting to do better, wanting to be better. I see that over and over again.”

She also wants to highlight the need for more teachers of color in schools nationwide.

“As a child growing up in an urban poverty-stricken environment, I only came in contact with one minority teacher. This contact greatly influenced the person I became,” she wrote in her application. Most of her teachers lived outside her community and she couldn’t see herself in them, she wrote: “As a child I would have loved to see a teacher who looked like me and shared my cultural background.”

Hayes said her students know her story. They know that she comes from the same streets that they call home. And their shared background is powerful.

“It definitely creates a level of trust,” she said. “I tell students, ‘I get it.’ I say, ‘I understand. The building you live in is the building I grew up in.’ ”

And for young women who become mothers before they’ve finished their education, she said, she has a message:

“This is not the end of your journey. You may have to do things differently, but you absolutely can do everything you ever wanted to do.”

The National Teacher of the Year program, run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, is meant to identify and celebrate the country’s exceptional educators. Besides Hayes, the other finalists for the 2016 honor are Nathan Gibbs-Bowling of Washington, Daniel Jocz of California and Shawn Sheehan of Oklahoma.