Jahana Hayes always knew that she wanted to be a teacher, but never saw herself reflected in the profession during her years of attending school. Hayes is now the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.
The Neag School of Education hosted Hayes, an education spokesperson and teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn., as the keynote speaker at this year’s annual Celebration of Diversity in Education event, held Sept. 28 at the Alumni Center on the UConn Storrs campus.
The purpose of the event is to celebrate diversity in education with the Neag School’s pre-teaching and current teacher education students of color — and to offer these students an opportunity to meet with peers, alumni, staff, faculty, and education professionals to network, ask questions, and gain new insights.
“It’s so empowering to be in a place where I’m hearing all these stories … to further open my eyes,” says Kaitlin Jenkins, a senior in the Integrated Bachelor’s/Master’s (IB/M) program at the Neag School.
“Throughout the country, there is a shortage of minority educators, there are less and less minorities attending teacher preparation programs, and there are more minorities leaving the profession because they don’t feel valued or supported.” Jahana Hayes, 2016 National Teacher of the Year
The annual diversity dinner provides an additional level of support and encouragement to future educators of color, says Mia Hines, academic advisor at the Neag School and the Diversity in Education event coordinator. It also serves, she says, as an opportunity for district partnership schools to see firsthand the talent and leadership that Neag School students exhibit in facilitating conversations about increasing the number of teachers of color in the profession, particularly in the state of Connecticut.
Students from Bulkeley High School, a public high school in Hartford and a district partner with the Neag School, who have an interest in education also attended the event, led by Neag School alumna Lauren Midgette ’12 (ED) ’13 MA, now a teacher at Bulkeley.
“A lot of students [of color] don’t see themselves in their teachers,” Midgette says. “It’s important for the students to come here and see that this is a viable profession.”
“[The event] always brings home how important this work is because of how transformational teachers of color can be,” adds Dorothea Anagnostopolous, executive director of teacher education at the Neag School.
Neag School Working to Bridge the Gap
Teachers of color in Connecticut make up just 8 percent of the teaching workforce, while 40 percent of the state’s students are of color, according to Neag School Dean Gladis Kersaint.
“The need to recruit and retain teachers of color — particularly in our own state — is evident,” Kersaint said during her event remarks. “The Neag School is actively working to help bridge this gap with a number of ongoing initiatives to diversify our student population and attract students of color to the teaching profession.”
In addition to formal remarks by the dean and informal, dinnertime conversations on the importance of diversity in the education workforce, student speakers talked about some of the specific initiatives that the School is running in order to recruit and retain students of color to pre-teaching and teaching programs.
Jenkins spoke about a mentoring program within the Neag School that started earlier this year called Diverse Educators Making Outstanding Change (D.E.M.O.). The mentoring program was created in partnership with student-led organization Leadership in Diversity (L.I.D.) to give support to students who come from underrepresented backgrounds.
Professional educators involved in D.E.M.O. volunteer their time and support to students of color enrolled in the IB/M program, as well as to students in the pre-teaching programs who are interested in enrolling in the IB/M program — with an ultimate goal of increasing interest in teaching among students of color.
These kinds of initiatives, in concert with other efforts, have resulted in the School nearly doubling its population of students of color in the teacher preparation program over the past academic year, from 12 percent to 20 percent, Kersaint says.
Teacher of the Year
During the 2016 calendar year, Hayes has visited 43 states and four countries, and has 236 scheduled appearances, including speaking at the White House. Through these appearances, Hayes has been speaking about the importance of elevating the profession and changing the perception that people have of teachers, as well as recruiting and retaining minority educators, specifically of black and Latino descent.
Most students have a very negative view of what the teaching profession holds, Hayes says, and a large part of that, she adds, is due to the fact that the educator workforce needs to be more reflective of the diverse student population.
“Not just in Connecticut, but throughout the country, there is a shortage of minority educators, there are less and less minorities attending teacher preparation programs, and there are more minorities leaving the profession because they don’t feel valued or supported,” Hayes says.
“I don’t think I ever had a teacher of color growing up,” says Ryan Concoran, a IB/M master’s student who attended the event. “It’s definitely an issue that should be more on the radar.”
Having Hayes at the dinner was very special, Hines says, because not only is she a Connecticut teacher, but she is also a woman of color who has some of the same lived experiences that Neag School students, faculty, and staff of color have had in the education system. Hayes spoke about how empowering it is to have a career in education, Hines says, and gave words of encouragement for current students to serve as leaders in social justice and equity education within their schools.
“Don’t wait for opportunities to come; create the opportunities that you need,” Hayes says. “Most people don’t even recognize the deficit that exists.” This type of leadership is what the Neag School works to instill in all of its students as they enter into the classroom, Hines says.
View photos from this year’s Diversity Dinner here.