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A Conversation With U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, an Award-Winning Teacher

The 116th U.S. Congress is more diverse than ever before, with a historic wave of women of color taking office.

While much of the national spotlight has been on the youngest woman to serve in Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, there is also a former history teacher who has made history with her election: Rep. Jahana Hayes.

Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, taught high school for over a decade. A Democrat, she is the first black woman from Connecticut to serve in Congress. 

Hayes was sworn into the U.S. House last week. Before then, she spoke to Education Week about her priorities in Congress—she hopes to be on the House education committee—as well as her thoughts on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, her experiences on the campaign trail, and what her election means for her students. 

Her responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

On Her Decision to Run for Office

"The defining moment for me was when I had a group of my students in California for a Habitat for Humanity trip because what I did was service—I had a club called the HOPE club, which stood for Helping Out People Everywhere. I really wanted to instill in these young people that you have a responsibility to be of service to others; to help in your community in any way that you can. And I had these kids in California this year, over spring break, and literally just looked at them and had a moment where I thought, 'I'm teaching them about this world that waits for them and their responsibility to be contributors. And I see this being chipped away at.' You know, 'Who will speak for them?' is a line that I've said often, but that's really where it came from. I asked myself that question, 'Who will speak for them?' and decided I was going to run for Congress to speak for all of those people who do not have a voice in the conversation."

On Her Priorities in Congress

Hayes wants to prioritize universal pre-K, career readiness, civics education, and mentoring new teachers.

On School Safety and Arming Teachers

"I worked in a school with 1,300 young people. I would never want the responsibility of securing a firearm in a school with 1,300 teenagers or having to have a conversation that began, 'I thought I locked my desk,' or 'I don't know how they got the gun away from me.' My husband is a police officer. We have firearms in our house. If there's an active shooter in a school and police are deployed, it's a high-tense, high-pressure situation. To have almost no training and be expected to use a firearm in a high-pressure situation, I don't think I would want that responsibility. And then I think about, you know, my husband as a police officer or a first responder having to figure out if the person holding the gun is the shooter [or] is an educator. I just don't think that that's the direction that we need to move in.

We need to have more background checks to make it more difficult for people to obtain firearms illegally. We have a lot of conversation about getting them off the streets. How about, let's stop them from getting on the streets. I think we really need to look at mental health and the crisis that we have surrounding mental health. Many of these people are not criminals until they are criminals, so a lot of this is dealing with their mental health challenges before they get to the point where they feel the need to walk into a public space and use a firearm. I think Connecticut has done a tremendous job just moving toward safer gun laws, and I think we need to try to duplicate what we've done in Connecticut around the country and really work toward keeping all of our communities safe." [Editor's note: Hayes represents the district that encompasses Newtown, where the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place.] 

On U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Hayes shares her concerns with DeVos' policies in this video:

On Teacher Strikes and Walkouts

"This is a profession and it needs to be treated as such. We can't be expected to produce the outcomes that people want without the resources, without looking at education as an investment—and not just a monetary investment. It's not just dumping money into education, but providing mentoring and support for new teachers. ... You have people who have multiple degrees who have gone to college and really prepared and trained to enter teaching as a profession and can't even afford to take care of their families. And I think that's unreasonable, and it feels like whenever we elevate our voices as teachers in defense of this profession, it's seen as an argument against students or drawing money from other areas. And it really should not be that way. We should be working in collaboration with our communities, with local partners, with government agencies, and not having to beg for the supports that we need to best serve our children." 

On Inspiring Young People to Get Civically Engaged

Hayes' historic campaign motivated her students and other young people to get involved in politics, she said. 

On Her Experience as 2016 National Teacher of the Year

"I saw education through so many different lenses. I had been a classroom teacher in the state of Connecticut in the same community where I was born and raised for my entire career. But what I saw [during my travels across the country] was that different communities were suffering with the same challenges, and different communities have tried different approaches. What I saw was that we want the same things—you know, I was in almost half the country. Different states, different demographics, and people were having the same conversations. And I realized that this is a national conversation. It's not just about what affects kids at Kennedy High School in Waterbury, but it's everywhere. In Wisconsin, New Mexico—everywhere around the country—people are faced with the same challenges, and we just want the best outcomes for our children and to elevate the profession."

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