Barack Obama’s Ode to Teaching and the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes

Barack Obama’s Ode to Teaching and the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes

Jahana Hayes receives the Crystal Apple award from President Obama / The White House

“Teaching is the profession that launches every career,” John B. King, Secretary of Education, wrote in his note this week to America’s teachers. Throughout National Teacher Appreciation Week, people from all walks of life sang gratitude to educators who made a difference. Jill Biden dedicated “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye to her high school English teacher. Spotify featured a playlist where artists thanked their teachers. Google’s doodler paid tribute.

Of the many teachers thanked in person, in writing and on Twitter, the spotlight, at least in the White House, belonged to Jahana Hayes, a social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn. Standing in front of a pack of fellow teachers from every state and territory, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year smiled, danced and held back tears as she spoke and was praised by President Barack Obama.

Among Hayes’ many accomplishments, Obama remarked on her ability to “inspire her students to give back,” and to show them that “sometimes the less you have, the more valuable it is to see yourself giving, because it shows you the power and influence you can bring to bear on the world around you.” He later added: “it takes a unique leader to get students who don’t have a lot to give of themselves.”

The award comes with a brief break from the classroom: Hayes will spend the next year on a paid sabbatical, touring the country to support the teaching profession, reports the Los Angeles Times.

“Teaching is about special moments, and as amazing as today is, it’s just one of many incredible moments I share with my students over the year,” Hayes stated. “I will make this year about bringing classrooms into communities, and communities into classrooms, and creating moments and starting a national conversation about how we can all be better for kids.”

In conjunction with the ceremony, the White House and the U.S. Department of Education highlighted progress on the education commitments made during the Obama administration in a report, “Giving Every Child a Fair Shot” (PDF). Among the accomplishments, a record 82 percent high school graduation rate in 2013-14, with Latino and black students enjoying a 5.5 and 5.3 percentage boost, respectively, from the 2010-11 school year; a 42 percent reduction in “dropout factories”—defined as schools where 40 percent or more of students do not graduate on time—from 2002 to 2014; and ensuring that 77 percent of school districts have access to high-speed broadband.

Private companies, joined by local governments and philanthropists, have collectively committed hundreds of millions of dollars to heed calls by the administration to support students and teachers. These public-private partnerships have supported a range of services, from expanding “Head Start” preschool access to building free literacy tools like the “Open eBooks App.” More money is on its way: Microsoft announced today a $3 million commitment over the next two years to TEACH, a movement to draw more talented students into the teaching profession.

These financial commitments do help train teachers, the administration noted. It lauded the efforts of 100kin10, a network of 280 cross-sector, public and private groups formed to meet Obama’s 2011 call to prepare 100,000 STEM teachers within ten years. So far, the group says it has helped train more than 30,000 STEM teachers. With more than $90 million pledged by its members, it is confident it will hit the 100,000 mark by 2021.

But Talia Milgrom-Elcott, co-founder and Executive Director of 100kin10, believes money alone will not solve the endemic issues within the teaching profession. In an interview with EdSurge, she acknowledged that “as we get closer to our goal, we realize that it’s not enough to simply train more teachers.” Through research with community and school leaders, her team has diagrammed the seven “root causes” of challenges in STEM teacher profession. Without fixing these impediments, she said, efforts of groups like 100kin10 will only be a stopgap measure.

These are concerning times for the teaching profession; even warm, sunny states like California and Hawaii face teacher shortages. There’s pervasive pessimism about the profession in states like Georgia, where a recent report (PDF) from the state education department found 67 percent of teachers were “unlikely or very unlikely to encourage graduates to pursue teaching.”

These somber statistics make the effort of Johanna Hayes, and the dozens of teachers from around the country who shared the stage at the White House, ever more critical.

“We are at a critical juncture; many states are facing challenges attracting and retaining teachers, especially minority teachers,” she said to loud applause. “As educators, we have a unique opportunity to share our empowering stories with students and communities and elevate this profession.”

Obama himself would not mind if his daughters pursued careers as educators. When asked by a teacher how he would respond if Sasha and Malia wanted to teach, the President replied “I will tell them, ‘I could not be prouder of what you’re doing.’ I’d tell them to be the kind of teachers who don’t just show her students how to get the correct answer, but how to be curious about the world….and how to believe in their ability to shape their own destiny.” 

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