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May 3, 6:35 PM EDT

Obama honors Connecticut woman as Teacher of the Year


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AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday bestowed the National Teacher of the Year honor on a Connecticut woman who has demonstrated through her own life that students can overcome almost any obstacle.

In a White House ceremony, Obama described how high school history teacher Jahana Hayes grew up in a Waterbury housing project and lived in a community full of "poverty and violence, high crime and low expectations."

"Being a teacher was the furthest thing from her mind," Obama said. "In fact, there were times where she didn't even want to be a student."

But Obama said Hayes' teachers saw something in her and challenged her to dream bigger and imagine a better life. They convinced her she was college material. Obama said Hayes now uses that experience to connect with the students she teaches at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury.

"Our teacher of the year here stands as proof that you can't set expectations high enough for our kids," Obama said. "There's magic in those kids. We just have to find it."

Hayes accepted the crystal apple given to the winner each year. She was selected for the honor by the Council of Chief State School Officers and was joined at the ceremony by those selected as teacher of the year in their home state.

Obama said Hayes also pushes her students to volunteer in the community. She's helped get students involved in Relay for Life walks to raise money for cancer, and also organized efforts to feed the homeless, donate clothes to the poor and register to vote, the president said.

"She understands the less you have the more important it is to see yourself giving," Obama said.

"I see myself in every one of those students," Hayes said at the beginning of the ceremony. "I have to seize every encounter as an opportunity to create a positive memory for a child. I remember vividly the teachers who created those memories for me and encouraged me to challenge myself."

Obama also used the moment to talk about progress in education during his administration, stating that high school graduation rates have never been higher. Still, he said too many schools are not preparing students as well as they should and challenged states to invest more resources into education.

He also said he considered teaching to be one of the noblest of professions and said if his daughters planned on becoming teachers, "I would tell them I could not be prouder."

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