Can you spell inspiration? Just spell J A H A N A H A Y E S, the national teacher of 2016, who was honored by President Obama and others in Washington earlier this week, and you’ll be correct. Hayes, a social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, will spend the next year, like a Ms. America of education, crisscrossing the United States, inspiring potential teachers and in her own words, “elevate the profession.”

Jahana Hayes’ life before she became a teacher was anything but a fairy tale. According to various news accounts, Hayes grew up in a Waterbury housing project with a mother who was addicted to drugs. Often, she worried that they would lose their apartment and have to move.

Hayes became a teen mother at the same age her mom gave birth to her — 17 — but she made up her mind to stay in school. She had been a brilliant honor student before her daughter, now 26, and the oldest of her four children, was born. But when she returned to school, hoping to continue learning, Hayes was assigned to a remedial program for teen mothers. Instead of finding college-bound courses and opportunities, this young woman became disillusioned with school and considered dropping out.

To her good fortune, a high school counselor continued to call and visit her at home, according to a story in the Hartford Courant. Hayes stuck with the high school program and did graduate. The Courant report said: “After high school graduation, she got a job and was thinking she’d just work and take care of her child … But one day, about 7 years after graduating from high school, she says she simply woke up and thought, ‘This cannot be my real life. I have to at least try, and I enrolled in a community college.’ ”

The article added: “Her own life experiences have helped shape Hayes’ teaching style — an approach that goes beyond typical classroom actions as she strives to really understand her students.”

In the end, she earned multiple degrees and loves teaching in her home town. Waterbury Superintendent of Schools Kathleen M. Ouellette, in the same Hartford Courant article, referred to Hayes as “the epitome of the American dream. She tells her story extremely well, grew up in an economically depressed area in Waterbury and she really experienced the harsh realities of urban life as a child and relied on her community and teachers to guide her into the direction of giving back to the community.”

Ouellette added that Hayes “makes those personal connections with each and every student.”

Learning about Jahana Hayes’ story can make any teacher aspire to become a National Teacher of the Year. The award has been around since 1952 and two other Connecticut teachers have been selected during its 64-year legacy.

While there can only be one national winner, millions of other educators around the country walk into their classrooms every morning and make their own kind of difference with students. And so many like Hayes are teaching in tough urban environments. Each time these teachers make any breakthrough with students, they are truly teachers of the year.

I know because I work at a charter school in Bridgeport with an amazing group of them. Each comes in every day with a special enthusiasm and dedication to give our students the best and most relevant education. And it is such a thrill each year to see the list of colleges and universities that are accepting our students.

I also have to offer kudos to my own daughter, who also is a special education teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury and has often been inspired by Jahana Hayes during her three years of teaching there. Stacey had been in sales for the Katherine Gibbs School in Norwalk for more than a year and her target audience was high schoolers, so she was constantly in front of that population in classrooms and auditoriums, and loved it.

One day she noticed an ad for teachers with little or no experience for Bridgeport schools. She was hired in a week and began her educator’s journey at Dunbar School in Bridgeport as seventh-grade special ed teacher. After many hurdles, she will be completing her 11th year as a teacher in June and, with no regrets, has two master’s degrees and a reading certification. She’s definitely our teacher of the year every year.

Teachers like Jahana Hayes are one in a million. But with this amazing teacher as inspiration, who knows how many Connecticut winners we’ll have in the next few years.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at