Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes to the 95th NEA Representative Assembly

Thank you to the NEA for inviting me here to speak today and to the NEA President Lily Eskelsen García for your unwavering commitment to teachers, students and public education.

I would just like to say that I am so grateful to be a member of the NEA. As a teacher I am so emotionally invested in the success of my students that I sometimes forget that I deserve the respect and dignity of being a professional. I am that teacher who stays after and comes early. I am that teacher who volunteers to be a part of initiatives that improves outcomes for students. I do whatever is asked of me because I believe that is what good teachers do but good teachers need to be protected. That altruistic character trait that all teachers possess is often times exploited. I am able to SOAR because my union keeps me grounded. They ensure that I am treated like the professional that I am and my creativity is not stifled by mandates. My union advocates on my behalf and creates a structure that protects me from myself.

Thank you to the [Connecticut Education Association] members and the Connecticut delegation. [CEA] President Sheila Cohen who has been so supportive of me throughout this entire process, and to Kevin Egan and my colleagues from WTA [Waterbury Teachers Association], I am honored and humbled to be counted among such an amazing group of educators.

I would like to begin today by asking you a question…

What comes out of school districts that are identified as underperforming, where 100 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch?

What comes out of destructive neighborhoods where multiple generations of the same family live in poverty succumb to addiction and are surrounded by persistent violence?

What comes out of households where there is no discussion of college or higher education?

And finally, what comes out of the cycle of teenage pregnancy where a grandmother, mother and a daughter are all parents before the age of 18?


As uncomfortable as it is to make this declaration, I share this with you today because I know that the NEA distinguish ourselves from other educational organizations in the firm belief that all students in America regardless of family income or where they live, deserve a high quality education.

My personal experiences are the greatest contributing factors to my success as a teacher. These experiences shaped my views and continue to influence my teaching style. Being the first in my family to attend college helps me to fully appreciate the power and importance of education. As a child everything I learned about school I learned at school. Teachers provided me with the support and encouragement to be a student. Teachers exposed me to a different world by letting me borrow books to read at home and sharing stories about their college experiences. Teachers challenged me to dream bigger and imagine myself in a different set of circumstances. I was oblivious to opportunities that existed outside of the projects where I grew up, but my teachers vicariously ignited a passion in me. Despite being surrounded by abject poverty, drugs and violence, my teachers made me believe that I was college material and planted a seed of hope. After becoming a teenage mother in high school I almost gave up on my dreams completely, but teachers showed me the many options that were still available if I continued my education.

As a teacher, my own life is a constant reminder that students come from different circumstances and experiences and our responses to these differences is as critical to them as the air they breathe for sustaining life. Teaching is not a job, it is a calling.

I strive to meet students where they are, and not dwell on where they should be. I remember myself at various points in my journey and imagine how hopeless I must have seemed to the teachers who continued to work with me. They saw something in me and did not give up even when I didn’t see anything in myself. Because of this, I celebrate every milestone, no matter how big or small and support students through the learning process because I know that where they begin does not determine where their journey will end.

Working in an urban public school district with a widely diverse population, I see so many things that fall outside of traditional teaching responsibilities but I also know that for many of my students I am their only hope. It is those times when I am transformed into an advisor, counselor, confidant and protector I have made the commitment to help my students in the same way my teachers helped me.

I identify with my students because I am my students and I know what it feels like when every statistic and everything around you is an indicator or a predictor of failure. I am my students. I am the student in many of your classrooms. Many of our students attend schools and come from communities and families just like mine yet, teachers can make all the difference in these situations. I carry my own experiences as a reminder that I must seize every encounter as an opportunity to ensure that a child’s dreams thrive.

If you ever question the work that you do, or the impact you have on kids… think of me!

In the last decade, so much has been said and done to diminish the level of respect, worth and dignity the public places on our profession.

My teachers left such an impression on me and I knew that I too wanted to be a teacher. Teaching is a noble profession and we have to bring that professionalism back. We must take back the narrative and ensure that this is the message we are sending at all times. When students look at us they see role models and someone they can be proud of. The field has evolved and we must evolve, Be the change you wish to see, by continuing to build capacity in ourselves and others. Bring forth fresh ideas and continue to challenge yourselves. We are responsible for the future and our classrooms are shining examples of all the promise the future holds. Our words and our actions should always support and sustain student success. Set high expectations for your students but set even higher expectations for yourself. Remember why you became a teacher and use that to reenergize you and elevate the profession. I have an absolute passion for the work that I do…… Figure out a way to capture the energy and excitement that is palpable at this convention and bring it back to your schools. Every interaction with a teacher should leave students inspired, encouraged and possibly influenced to become a teacher themselves.

We must work within our districts to build a culture that values and supports a diverse student population. Every student in your class should feel included in the conversation and know that they have the human and civil right to a quality education that develops their potential, independence and character. That is the charge of all teachers and the mission of the NEA. As educators we must work together to find ways to empower students intellectually, socially and emotionally. We should use their demographics and cultural experiences as a way to impart knowledge and skills, and begin to change attitudes not let them be reminders of the obstacles that monopolize their daily home lives. All students should feel like exceptional individuals with unlimited potential and our job is to unlock that potential. Every student in every school should feel valued, respected and represented in your classrooms. We could all learn something from each other. In order to achieve more collective growth as a society, all children must feel like they make a valuable contribution and respect the contributions of others. Even if they are different. Students cannot be expected to exhibit tolerance and acceptance in the real world, yet never see these behaviors modeled in school. We must explore creative and inclusive ways of reaching students and teaching them how to demonstrate empathy and compassion for other. Every child is entitled to an educational experience that is rich and robust and reflective of their personal journey, no matter what community they come from.

How do we make students believe that they are special and important and capable of anything they put their minds to? The answer is simple…show them that you care. I don’t remember much about the lessons that I was taught in school but I remember vividly the teachers who made me feel like they cared about me by making a personal investment in my success and gave me their best. Students should see their teachers as someone who cares about their academic success and their personal growth. Someone who cares about their families and their communities. Someone who takes the time to learn their stories and understand their journeys. WE are the people who ignite passions in students and help them fulfill their obligation to do their part to improve the human condition. It is the connections we make with students that make everything else worthwhile. Say something encouraging, greet your students with a smile, invest the extra time, go the extra mile, leave a significant inspirational fingerprint… show them that you care.

I know what happens when a teacher chooses to ignore the obstacles and focus on the dream. I am what happens when a teacher chooses to ignore the obstacles and focus on the dream.

I have made several trips to Washington in the last few weeks and I have visited the Martin Luther King memorial every time. Something about that structure standing so boldly in the National Park draws me in. The theme of this monument is “out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

I don’t know what drew you to this profession, but for me it was the knowledge that teachers have the transformative power to save lives, we are instruments of inspiration, teachers are that stone of hope for so many students. A profound trust exists between us and our students. We have an enduring presence and make a lasting impact. Teachers are not visitors in the lives of students. You are somebody’s hero, and you don’t even know it. Don’t take that responsibility lightly. We often hear that teachers reserve their best lessons for when they are being observed. Remember that everyday your students are observing you. BE EXEMPLARY…Continue growing, guiding and loving your students because you may have the next president, supreme court justice, doctor, lawyer, business owner, performer, volunteer, activist, or national teacher of the year sitting in your classroom.