Waterbury teacher honored at White House after being named teacher of the year

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WASHINGTON – A very special nutmegger was honored at the White House on Tuesday in front of the president and fellow educators.

Jahana Hayes was named national teacher of the year last week, just months after being chosen as the first Waterbury teacher to be named Connecticut Teacher of the Year.

"Wow. I am honored to be named the national teacher of the year, and to joined by amazing educators standing with me today, and teaching in classrooms all across the country," Hayes said at the beginning of her speech.

The 44-year-old social studies teacher from Kennedy High School was introduced by the president on Tuesday, which is part of Teacher Appreciation Week.

obama and hayes

Hayes became a mom at the age of 17 and nearly dropped out of high school, but she kept going. None of her family members had gone to college, but she did. And she inspires her students to do the same.

"Every teacher started as a student, and like many students around the country I know what it feels like to have a dream, and to exist in an environment where nothing is expected to thrive. Schools where nothing is said or done to nurture or support a dream...I see myself in every one of those students, and I carry my own experiences as a reminder that as a teacher, I have to be better," Hayes said.

As the National Teacher of the Year, Hayes will spend the next school year largely out of her classroom.

“There is a minimum of 200 speaking engagements throughout the country and the world for next year,” Hayes said.

Sen. Chris Murphy joined Hayes at the White House for the celebration.

During her speech, Hayes also spoke about the need to encourage students to become teachers, especially minorities, by changing the dialogue surrounding what the profession means.

"That is what teaching is about: the passion, the commitment, the joy, the stories. As educators, we have a unique opportunity to share our empowering stories with students and communities and elevate this profession," Hayes said.

After learning that she was picked as teacher of the year, Hayes said that meeting Obama would be one of the  best parts of the award. “The office of the president, for me, probably is like second to Jesus,” Hayes said last week.

She then teared up when it was time for her "privilege" to introduce "someone who understands everything I just said. The president of the United States, Barack Obama."

"What's remarkable about Jahana's natural talent in the classroom is that when she was growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut, being a teacher was the furthest thing from her mind," the president said when it was time for him to speak. "In fact, there were times when she didn't even want to be a student. No one in Jahana's family had gone to college. No one at home particularly encouraged her education. She lived in a community full of poverty and violence, high crime and low expectations. Drugs were more accessible than degrees. As a teenager, Jahana became pregnant, wanted to drop out of school, but her teachers saw something. They saw something in her, and they gave her an even greater challenge, and that was to dream bigger, and to imagine a better life. They made her believe she was college material, and that she had the special gift to improve not only her own condition, but those around her."