Touring Africa, top teacher finds curiosity about U.S. schools [video]

Teacher in classroom with students (Waterbury Public Schools)
Jahana Hayes teaches history at Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut. (Waterbury Public Schools)

When Jahana Hayes, the U.S. National Teacher of the Year, was on a goodwill tour of Africa and told educators there that American schools are not consumed by student test scores, she was met with surprise — and envy.

“That’s not the totality of American education,” the secondary school history teacher from Waterbury, Connecticut, explained. “We want to spark creativity and innovation and develop critical thinkers.”

Hayes met with education ministers, professors, classroom teachers and teacher candidates on State Department–sponsored trips to Namibia, Malawi, Algeria and Tunisia.

Some were puzzled about why U.S. students don’t score at the very top rungs on international tests of math and science.

“We’re moving away from evaluating students solely on test scores,” the award-winning teacher told them. Her audiences were also surprised to hear that teachers try to develop close relationships with students.

Portrait photo of Jahana Hayes (Waterbury Public Schools)
Jahana Hayes (Waterbury Public Schools)

They marveled at the notion “that you can take kids and develop authentic experiences with them and create your own lessons” instead of just teaching to the test. And many told her they’d like to duplicate that.

“Everywhere I went there was this curiosity and envy about what happens in American schools,” she said.

Hayes was impressed in turn by the high regard in which teachers are held in these four countries. “There is this unmistakable thirst for knowledge,” she said.

She was moved by a visit to a village in Malawi where girls were returning to school after child marriages were outlawed. Another impressive school was the Salima Primary School for the Blind, operated with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development. “This was an area of the country where there were once no schools for special needs,” she said.

Another lesson she learned came from observing how “everyone in Tunisia was glued to the TV” on the day Americans chose a new president. “I never fully appreciated the impact that American elections have on the rest of the world. As a history teacher, that was amazing to see.”

Hayes, 44, came late to the profession after having a child at age 17 and waiting seven years after high school to enter college. She made up for lost time after getting hired 13 years ago.

At John F. Kennedy High School, she’s stood out not only in the classroom, but as an inspiring counselor, mentor and organizer of community projects.

Hayes has been speaking and visiting schools across America for the past year. A successor will be chosen and honored at the White House in April in a competition organized by state school superintendents.

Video courtesy of Council of Chief State School Officers.