Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, knows what it takes to be a good teacher. In fact, she’s been in the game for twelve years, currently serving as a history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut. But she also believes that not everyone is cut out for the profession, especially if they aren’t willing to change with the times—times that have brought an onslaught of new technologies and practices into the classroom.
What does it mean, then, for the teaching profession to prepare for 2020? Last week, EdSurge had the opportunity to sit down with Hayes to hear about her thoughts on what the profession is missing, why there’s a dearth of minority educators in the field, and how her own district struggles with “antiquated ideas” about social media and the like.
EdSurge: Welcome, Jahana! Now, as the Teacher of the Year, you’ll spend the next 12 months out of the classroom and serving as an ambassador for the teaching profession. This can’t come soon enough, because I’ve noticed over time that teacher voice often gets forgotten in crucial conversations. Why do you think that is?
Hayes: Well, one thing I’m learning very quickly in this role is that everybody comes to the table with their unique perspectives. I’ve met well-intentioned policymakers, legislators, and textbook companies, and they have all these consultants, done this research… and they’re doing what they think is the best thing for teachers. But it looks so different in every classroom. I’m a high school history teacher, so what affects me is going to be very different from what affects an elementary reading coach.
It takes work to solicit teacher voice, because it’s not just one voice. I think people have to be willing to take the time, and be purposeful about their interactions with teachers.
Well, let’s talk about your path, for a second. What was it about education that excited you, and got you on the path towards community college, an eventual four-year degree, and back into the classroom as a teacher?
The thing about education is that it’s a longterm answer. Some of the challenges in my life were so overwhelming that I decided, “This can’t be my life. At the end of this process, I need to be self-sufficient…” But that presents a barrier to a lot of people because it’s not something where you enter a program and you’re done in three or six months. It involves a great deal of commitment and investment.
And has your journey to becoming a teacher led you to realize what the profession needs?
Absolutely. For me, education was so important, and I reflect back on those experiences where school was the only thing that was safe for me, and the only place where I experienced any form of success. I know how important it is to duplicate those experiences, so I’m constantly reflecting back on my journey.
And what is the profession is missing? I used to be a teacher, and I remember that when I told friends and family that I wanted to go into the classroom, they would respond with, “Why teaching? Why not become a doctor or lawyer?” There seems to be this reputation that makes it difficult for teaching to attract strong talent. Why do you think that is?
Well, it’s funny, because in my travels, people will ask, “How should we introduce you?” I’ll say, “Well, I’m just a teacher,” and the response is usually, “No, you’re not just a teacher.” But I think to myself, “You don’t get it. This is all I’ve ever wanted to be. This is the dream job.”
In the last decade, with the media and teachers retiring and declining enrollment in some of our preparation programs, there’s just this idea that there are so many accountability standards and hoops that teachers have to jump through. I think that people are really missing out on the gift that is teaching, and the reason why people go into this profession in the first place.
Unfortunately, for many young people, it’s almost not worth it to join this profession. I’m hoping that in the next decade, we’ll do better in marketing who we are and the positives of the profession. We’ve come out of an era with No Child Left Behind, which was meant to protect students and elevate the profession, but it only showed one side of what we do.
Do you think that contributes to the lack of minority teachers out there, or is that lack due to something else?
I definitely think that contributes to it, but I think for me, not having seen many minority teachers, even today… teaching looks traditionally one way. Kids look at teachers as a certain demographic, from certain communities. At my school, about 75% of the staff is white/female.
I think of this beautiful quote: “You have to see it to be it.” Kids—students of color—haven’t seen “it.” I work in a large, urban district, and many of the teachers employed in my building live in the suburbs, come in for work, and then go back home. Kids from these communities then don’t see themselves in these roles, and then they go home and don’t have conversations about how to get into these roles.
Do you think that newer teaching programs like Teach for America and New York City Teaching Fellows are adding to the teaching world, or making it feel more like a temporary stepping stone—and not a profession?
It’s a double-edged sword. Any program that attracts teachers to the profession is beneficial. But the idea that anyone can teach is not helpful. You look at other countries, and it’s almost a privilege to even be invited into this profession. This idea that anyone can come in and do this, and it’s a stepping stone to your “real” career might be detrimental… Teaching is not a gateway to a ‘real’ job. But at the same time, you catch those handful of people who come in, fall in love with the profession, and choose to stay.
Let’s switch gears for a second. Like we’ve talked about, a lot has changed over time in relation to the teaching profession—and in terms of that change, what role does technology play now in what you and your students do?
Oh my god, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Technology has changed teaching. You have access to unlimited resources that are right at your fingertips. And one of the challenges we have at my school is that we can’t keep up with technology. Oftentimes, my students are walking me through programs that our IT department hasn’t even gotten yet. We purchase computers or equipment, and two years later, it’s outdated.
We don’t really have the resources to keep up with technology in the way that other industries have. I think it’s very rare that a school or district uses technology to its full capacity. We train students on programs that end up being obsolete by the time they go into the workforce.
I think a better use of our resources would be to partner with industries that can afford to keep up with technology. But teaching does not look like what it did five years ago. I can take my kids on a tour of the Smithsonian from my classroom; I can Skype into another educator’s classroom and share resources or watch them teach.
We get asked that a lot—”With every new technology, how do we keep teachers on top of their game?” And you’re right, students can be a resource. Do you have any advice for teachers, whether new or experienced, on how to keep up with this onslaught of technology?
I think districts and central office personnel really need to change their view of technology. I think back to when I was named a finalist for the national Teacher of the Year—my district has a policy against social media. I had no social media presence—even though apparently, everyone else communicates in this way. I had to go back to them, and they had these very antiquated ideas about how social media works. In fact, the PD the teachers were getting… it was for tools that students don’t even use anymore!
Again, this is one of those areas where we should partner with someone (large corporations, universities) who uses this technology on a regular basis… I think districts are worried about the cost, but there’s that philosophy of “train one teacher, they’ll teach the rest of the staff.” Our answer can’t just be “We’re not going to use it.”