From the classroom to Congress, Jahana Hayes transformed her passion for teaching into political leadership.
Thomas Bishop, a student at Kennedy High School, ran into then–Congressional candidate Jahana Hayes while shopping at Walmart with his mother.
“It was kind of like meeting a celebrity. I went up to her and was really excited,” he recalled. But Bishop had known Hayes since before she got famous. She was a ninth grade world history teacher at his high school in Waterbury.
“She asked my mom if she would vote for her,” said Bishop. Although she never taught Bishop in the classroom, everyone at Kennedy knew Hayes.
On Nov. 6, 2018, Hayes beat her Republican opponent, Manny Santos, and won Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District seat with 56 percent of the vote. She became the first black Democrat and first black woman to represent the state of Connecticut in Congress.
Her opponent, the former mayor of Meriden, ran a campaign with rhetoric echoing President Donald Trump’s. Santos called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and praised the president’s proposed border wall. Hayes stuck to her roots and focused on education.
Two years before her election, she was honored as the National Teacher of the Year in 2016. A national selection committee representing major U.S. education organizations selects the honoree from among the State Teachers of the Year. In the year of recognition, the honored teacher tours nationally and internationally, giving speeches about teaching and education advocacy. Hayes was recognized by then–President Barack Obama, who praised her ability to get students behind a cause.
“Jahana inspires her students to give back,” Obama said in his Teacher of the Year announcement. “I think she understands that, actually, sometimes the less you have, the more valuable it is to see yourself giving, because that shows you the power and the influence that you can bring to bear on the world around you.”
In her acceptance speech, Hayes called the moment a “critical juncture” in education. She thought the government needed to address attracting and retaining teachers, especially ones from underrepresented backgrounds. Hayes brought her experience as a teacher to the forefront of her Congressional campaign. Her ability to captivate students in the classroom translated into an ability to captivate voters.
“An opportunity gap, not an achievement gap”
Hayes’ own success story was a central element of her campaign platform. On her campaign website, Hayes described her journey from poverty to national recognition. Raised in a public housing project in Waterbury, Hayes grew up in a family that struggled with addiction and poverty. She became a teenage mother at the age of 17.
Hayes’ history with poverty is familiar to many students she taught at Kennedy. According to Connecticut 2015 income statistics compiled by Department of Economic and Community Development research, Waterbury’s $40,467 median household income is lower than Bridgeport’s, Hartford’s, New Britain’s and New Haven’s. Towns within Connecticut’s 5th district in the Farmington valley not far from Waterbury, such as Farmington, Avon, and Simsbury, each boast more than twice the median household income of Waterbury.
“There’s a lot of inequity throughout the district. … Some have resources, some don’t,” said Mary Glassman, who ran against Hayes in the Democratic primaries. Hayes beat Glassman, the former first selectman, similar to a mayor, of Simsbury, winning 62 percent of the vote. Glassman also had education experience as the current managing director of the Capitol Region Education Council, an organization that aims to meet the educational needs of students in the greater Hartford area. Hayes pitched herself as the outsider candidate for the job compared to Glassman who had experience as the former first selectman of Simsbury.
Although the 5th Congressional District was projected to go blue this midterm election, the seat was historically Republican until now–Sen. Chris Murphy beat Republican incumbent Nancy Johnson in 2006. Ronald Schurin, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, described the Hayes–Santos race as “one of the more interesting races in Connecticut.”
“There’s a trend in this race and in Connecticut for candidates with no political experience to be elected,” said Glassman, pointing to the 2018 gubernatorial race in which two business executives, Bob Stefanowski and Ned Lamont, ran for governor of Connecticut. “Voters [want] to see something different happen, [they] don’t want to see incremental change.”
Following her selection as National Teacher of the Year, Hayes worked on the Waterbury Board of Education as the director of talent and professional development. Elizabeth Brown, the president of the Waterbury Board of Education, said she shares Hayes’ vision for education reform.
“Her platform is a voice for the underprivileged. She will fight for equity in urban school districts that lack in resources and enrichment programs,” said Brown. During her tenure at the Board of Education, Hayes got a state grant that mandated the Board of Education to hire more teachers of color. Out of 90 teachers hired in 2018, 33 percent were teachers of color.
“I share Jahana’s vision that it is an opportunity gap, not an achievement gap,” said Brown. Brown said she believes the 5th Congressional district needed someone to address that gap who would be “the most authentic voice” for students.
Mary Glassman said that under Hayes, she “would like to see more of a regional collaboration in the 5th Congressional district” over educational resource allocation to address the disparity in school funding and achievement between the Farmington Valley and inner city school districts like Waterbury.
Elizabeth Brown explained that she believed Congress plays “a significant role” in Waterbury educational issues. The Waterbury public school system receives $31 million annually in federal funds.
“Her faith in young people”
For many at Kennedy High School, Hayes and her influence are a not-so-distant memory. Paula DeSantis, an early childhood education teacher, started teaching at Kennedy just after Hayes won Teacher of the Year, but knew her as the woman who taught her own son a decade ago. Some students were conflicted that a beloved teacher left Kennedy to continue on a path of fame and renown.
Jenilyn Djan, a senior at Kennedy High School, was Hayes’ student before Hayes left for her international tour as Teacher of the Year.
“When I found out she was running for office, I was a little shocked,” Djan said. Djan wished she had developed a closer relationship with Hayes before she left for her tour.
“We both didn’t really get the chance to really get to know her. We literally had her for four months… [I] just wish [I] had a special relationship with her that the class before us had,” said Djan.
Victor Morales, also a senior at Kennedy, said that things have been changing at the school
“There are some teachers who are absolutely amazing. Like the best teachers. They have the right amount of, ‘Yes let’s teach,’ but also, ‘Let’s make this a fun experience so you actually want to learn,” Morales said. However, “a lot of the good ones” have recently left.
Morales was frustrated that Hayes had left the Kennedy High School community after receiving the Teacher of the Year award. “She instantly got that award and was gone.”
Others insist that Hayes has remained connected to the school. “She still supports us and comes to events, which is good,” said Thomas Bishop, a sophomore at Kennedy High School.
Hayes found crucial political support in students and young people. Farian Rabbani, a student at the University of Connecticut, was the co-founder of Students for Jahana, a group that canvassed for Hayes during the election.
“I would say [running for Congress] is not leaving the community at all. She’s giving the community a voice,” said Rabbani. Rabbani explained that Hayes listened to her student volunteers and put them to work with tasks they found meaningful.
“It’s been almost a life changing experience,” Rabbani said. “Hayes sees the value in young people, in everyone who comes on this campaign. She gives us real responsibilities. It speaks to her faith in young people.”
“We are a country that educates our children”
While setting up a Halloween event for Kennedy students, Paula DeSantis, a teacher of early childhood education at Kennedy, expressed her frustrations with the Waterbury school district and her work environment at Kennedy High School. The Halloween party was organized by a student service club at Kennedy that aimed to provide a safer alternative to students who would otherwise celebrate the holiday in the surrounding high crime neighborhoods. DeSantis named student–teacher relationships and available resources as two challenges she has faced in her years working at Kennedy.
“A lot of our families are economically challenged,” explained DeSantis. “The city itself has limited resources as well because the state aid we do get is earmarked for things other than education. And I get that, but it’s hard to teach without the proper resources.”
Rabbani explained that, as a resident of a state that boasts the third highest student debt in the country, he supported Hayes because of her promise to advocate for trade schools and alternative educational paths.
“Me and every student I know still barely have enough to pay for toilet paper in our dorm,” Rabbani said.
During an Oct. 17 debate at Central Connecticut State University, Santos emphasized individual responsibility as a solution for paying off student debt.
“One thing we have to remember is that these are debts that occurred by individuals of their own choosing,” said Santos. “They wanted to attend a college or a school that they may not have been able to afford.”
Hayes strongly disagreed. “We are a country that educates our children. And the idea that people should not be able to access federal funds in order to go to college is ridiculous,” said Hayes.
DeSantis hopes that Hayes will look out for teachers’ interests in Congress, which mainstream politicians often overlook.
“I know she’s in Congress. I know we’re not that important, but I’m just thinking that it might be good to have somebody who’s a teacher who knows something about education to be in a position to talk about education,” said DeSantis.“A lot of time even the people who are on the [Waterbury Board of Education] are not teachers. They’re business people. And what do business people know? A lot of them haven’t been in the classroom in 25 years.”
DeSantis observed that Hayes found widespread support among her former colleagues at Kennedy. “A lot of people thought she would shed some light on Waterbury and a lot of the inner city schools in Connecticut as a congressperson,” said DeSantis. “At least I would hope that one of her platforms would be education reform and education funding.”
Students and teachers expressed their hope that Hayes would represent their school and reverse stereotypes about teachers and students in Waterbury.
Kennedy Assistant Principal Peter McCasland explained that 80 percent of the 114 teachers at Kennedy High School work a second job. McCasland argued that the teaching profession does not receive the respect it deserves. “And I’d like to see [Hayes] be able to articulate that and get that out to the public,” said McCasland.
Before election day, Kennedy senior Derya Demirel voiced a similar hope that having Hayes in office would quash preconceived notions about Waterbury schools. “I hope that if she does win on Tuesday [she will] kick the stereotype of Waterbury or public high schools down,” Demirel said. “She’s more of a ‘for the people’ candidate.”
Hayes was not the only candidate this election cycle with roots in the classroom. The National Education Association announced in September that nearly 1,800 educators ran for positions in public office. Early stirrings of teacher activism in the form of teacher walkouts and protests occurred in states such as Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and California. Around the country, teachers responded to a call to action and ran for office. Even Glassman, Hayes’ primary opponent, had experience in education.
Jane Karr, a Yale professor who edited Education Life at The New York Times for two decades, explained that education is an extremely important issue to voters in local and state elections, as opposed to on the federal level. Teachers, Karr said, “are on the ground” and know the issues. Still, the teacher strikes in Western states have drawn national attention to their concerns about underfunded classrooms. Karr thinks that the educator figure appealed to voters because they see teachers as political outsiders who prioritize their children’s interests.
Reflecting on her teaching career and her frustrations with the Waterbury public school system, Paula DeSantis teared up when discussing the 5th Congressional district election. “I’m hopeful that [Hayes] can do some good in Congress,” said DeSantis.
In January, Hayes joined Connecticut Reps. Jim Himes, Rosa DeLauro, John Larson and Joe Courtney in the U.S. House of Representatives. Hayes gave her victory speech before 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 6, fighting back tears as she spoke between periods of applause from her supporters. Hayes emphasized her belief in young students and constituents who had overcome obstacles in their lives.
“This was about making sure that everyone from every background from every neighborhood — teachers, firefighters, farmers, factory workers — every person has a voice in Washington,” announced Hayes. “This was never about winning. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure we could do it.”
Hayes brought her Congressional victory back to her roots in the classroom. “Today we are making history. This history teacher is making history,” she said before more applause.