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Education Equity

Jahana Hayes: From the Classroom to the House

Congresswoman and former high school history teacher Jahana Hayes on the disconnect between Washington and the classroom, and the importance of keeping teacher voices in the mix.

July 12, 2021

For Jahana Hayes, a former history teacher who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018—making her the first African American woman and the first African American Democrat to ever represent the state of Connecticut in Congress—education policy is deeply personal. “I often say that school saved my life. And I don’t say that in a cliché way,” she insisted during our interview one morning in June. “I say that because when you’re growing up in public housing and you’re seeing things that children shouldn’t see, and you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from, and you want to go to college but you don’t know what that looks like, you really have to rely on the kindness of other people. For me, those people were generally at school.”

Attending to the disconnect between the urgent, on-the-ground needs of educators and schools and the high-level policy decisions coming out of Washington is where Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, is forging her way as a legislator.

Earlier this year, she introduced a bill earmarking funds to diversify the teaching workforce, and in June she introduced legislation that would allocate $100 billion in grants to address pandemic-related learning loss via things like tutoring and extended instruction time, and boost social and emotional learning and student mental health resources in schools. Her very first resolution after taking office was about keeping guns out of classrooms—a poignant moment for Hayes, who, as a teacher, “stood in the classroom the day after the Sandy Hook shooting, where my kids were asking me questions that I couldn’t answer.”

Hayes agreed to chat with me recently—over Zoom from her office in the Longworth House Office Building, a five-minute walk from the U.S. Capitol Building—about the impact of the pandemic on teachers and schools, the importance of including educators’ perspectives at the decision-making table, and her dream of one day returning to the classroom.

SARAH GONSER: You’ve been out of the classroom just two and a half years, after 15 years as a history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterford, Connecticut. Do you miss it?

JAHANA HAYES: I miss it every day, and what I miss the most is my kids, my students. Every time anything happens here, my first thought is how would I turn this into a lesson? What would I talk about the next day in class? Everything from landmark legislation that we passed, or hearings, to the impeachment trial, or even the January 6 insurrection. My first instinct is always: How would I facilitate a lesson in a classroom for kids?

GONSER: You’ve spoken before about the divide between the thinking of policymakers and the actual work in classrooms across the country. What, from your perspective, are some of the fundamental misconceptions or blind spots that exist in Congress about public education?

HAYES: I mean, we saw it over the last year. Before we could even close schools, we had to figure out how we’re going to feed millions of kids. That’s clearly not an academic issue. That is a hunger issue. And it really speaks to the fact that our schools provide so many services for so many children and families. We have to fundamentally secure all of these wraparound services—address things like the digital divide, mental health, air quality in schools, infrastructure, and overcrowding—so that when kids get in class, they’re not hungry, they’re ready to learn, and teachers can do the work that they need to do. These are all issues teachers have long known about.

GONSER: So what’s different about how you see education versus how your colleagues in Washington see it?

HAYES: I don’t see it through a policy lens. I see it through meeting the needs of students, meeting them where they are, and the importance of a healthy, thriving school community. Many of my colleagues look at it from the perspective of: How much is this going to cost? And what are the policy implications? And what can we get support for? I look at it as: Inside that building, and in this moment, what do people need?

And I struggled over the last year because I saw many of my teaching colleagues bear the brunt of this pandemic. It went from “they’re heroes” to “they’re being selfish and they don’t want to return to the classroom.” Meanwhile, they’re buying their own PPE and equipment, and now they need to come back during the summer to make up for learning loss. And I was like: enough! We have to allow them the space for some personal wellness. We shouldn’t expect that our educators will put their heads down and just continue to toe the line with no support at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level. This is a place where I’ve really tried to fill the void, because there really is no one else here to do that.

GONSER: Do you feel policymakers are hearing this message more clearly now?

HAYES: I have to remind my colleagues: When you visit a district or a school, you’re generally visiting the most modern, newly renovated campus within that school ecosystem. Every school is not like that. So you really have to consider: How do we meet the needs of the least ready school building? Because once we do that, everything else falls into place. And then I want to ensure that every conversation about education centers on student success or student needs, while reminding my colleagues that you cannot meet the needs of students without supporting teachers and administrators and hearing what they need.

GONSER: Let’s talk about teacher agency, teacher voice. We hear from many teachers who say that federal and state policies often limit their agency in the classroom and undercut their professional expertise. Do you worry about this?

HAYES: Absolutely. That bothers me. And when we reopened schools, my opposition was adamant when many districts, literally a week after the kids returned, wanted to reinstitute standardized testing. And part of the challenge is that people in Congress, in legislative positions, use that [testing] information as a way to assess where kids are in order to make the case for future appropriations. 

I think the bigger challenge is that these standardized tests are not driving curriculum—but they are really just a data collection tool which doesn’t take into account all the little things that teachers do every day. I mean, there are so many students who are just not good test takers. There are buildings where I worked that aren’t air-conditioned. So go try to take a standardized test on a 90-degree day when you’ve been sitting for hours. We try to regulate and standardize all those factors, but it’s just not possible. 

I think the best measures of student success involve gathering information over time in many different ways, using multiple modalities, and letting teachers and schools take the lead on these conversations. I recognize the need to collect data, the motives behind it, but standardized tests are not the most productive way to do it.

GONSER: Do you think there are some policies or priorities that the federal government is currently funding that are actually harmful to students?

HAYES: Right now, I’m deeply concerned about what happens next. Whenever there’s a crisis in municipalities, education is generally the largest chunk of their budget, so when they start cutting services and programs, that’s where they start. I’ve seen too many school counselors and social workers and nurses be stretched so thin that they simply cannot meet the needs of students. 

So even though we have the American Rescue Plan, which is the largest investment in education in over 100 years, I really want to ensure that we’re doing things that are sustainable, because the worst thing we could do is to stabilize schools and communities and children—and then pull the rug out from under them. I know that there are some kids, and some schools and communities, that are relying on us to get it right, right now. Kids who can’t wait five years for a plan, who can’t wait for another administration.

GONSER: So what keeps you hopeful?

HAYES: I’m very excited to be in this Congress right now; I believe we will experience a seismic shift in the way we develop education policy. I believe the American Rescue Plan has teacher prints all over it because at every meeting, whenever legislation was introduced, I was able to inject my voice and perspective as a teacher.

But I want to say that these [education policy] decisions should not be made without teachers at the table. Teachers should be paying attention; parents should be paying attention. We can’t afford to check out of this conversation because, literally every day, we are making decisions and taking votes that impact what happens in your classrooms, in your schools, and in your communities.

GONSER: Will you return to teaching one day, do you think?

HAYES: I would welcome the opportunity. I actually had a little bit of a panic a few months ago because my certification needed to be renewed and I thought I’d missed the deadline. All I ever wanted was to be a teacher and I worked so hard for my teacher certification, the thought of it lapsing was just scary. 

I would love to be able to close this circle by going back into the classroom and really connecting all the dots on the things that I spoke to students about in a very hypothetical way. 

I think my resilience in this role came from the fact that I’ve only been out of the classroom for two-and-a-half years. I brought this heart and these eyes to Congress. I wasn’t so far removed from the classroom that I forgot what it was like, and I think that is really, really important.

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