WASHINGTON — As he walked in through the Southeast Gate of the White House last Tuesday, along with a couple of hundred of his peers to be honored by President Obama on National Teacher Appreciation Day, Bishop Hendricken Principal Joseph Brennan felt incredibly honored to have made the positive impact on his students and staff that led to his being selected to participate in this most special day for an educator.
A forecast for chilly rain prompted the ceremony, in which the president introduces the new National Teacher of the Year — this year Jahana Hayes, of Waterbury, Conn., who overcame many challenges to be there — and pays tribute to the State Teachers of the Year (including Tracy Lafreniere of North Smithfield, R.I.), to be moved from the South Lawn to the White House East Room.
As his group processed through the lower halls of the executive mansion, Brennan felt a sense of awe, marveling at the paintings of the presidents who served there adorning the walls, and thinking about all of the historic meetings that have taken place through the past two centuries.
“It’s so amazing,” Brennan said in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic in the East Room, while the educators waited for the president to arrive.
“We had all this access, we could walk around the White House and into different rooms,” he said. “It was pretty remarkable, and then we come up here and they have music, they have entertainment. It was way more than I thought it was going to be.”
Brennan, 61, didn’t become an educator 39 years ago for the accolades. With each of those years spent working at Bishop Hendricken, his alma mater, he did so because he relished the idea of being able to make a difference in the lives of young people. But being invited to take part in the annual national celebration of the work done in schools and classrooms across the country each day was a bit overwhelming for him.
As he scanned the historic room, he admitted to being nervous about visiting, as he really didn’t know what to expect. He had only learned in the last couple of weeks that the White House had approved his nomination as a Great Educator, which was submitted through the Council for American Private Education by Diocese of Providence Catholic Schools Superintendent Dan Ferris.
“It is just very exciting to be here with all these great educators and take part in this,” Brennan said. “It’s a dream, I never thought this would happen.
Many more educators were in attendance than usual at the annual event, as President Obama expressed a wish in his final year as president to depart from tradition and celebrate not just the 55 teachers representing each U.S. state and territory, and including the national school district for military services, but also a broad spectrum of “Great Educators” from across the nation.
This group ranged from teachers to classroom aides to principals, and was the category in which Brennan was honored.
Ferris said the White House had reached out to CAPE seeking to honor educators from the nation’s private as well as public schools. Of the 33 names submitted by CAPE to the White House for approval, Brennan was the sole nominee to be chosen.
While the educators enjoyed hors’ d’oeuvres and made connections with each other, a military band played music in the main hall during the reception.
The teachers were then called together into the East Room for the program, which opened with a medley of songs performed by pop star Nate Reuss, who recently recorded several hit songs with the band “Fun.”
Of all the educators gathered, none seemed more elated than Jahana Hayes, who President Obama warmly introduced as the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.
Hayes, a history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn., was overcome with joy by the president’s introduction and couldn’t keep from flashing a beaming smile out to her peers both behind and in front of her, where many captured the moment with their cell phone cameras.
President Obama paused his introduction as he took notice of her excitement.
“This is what makes her a great teacher,” the president said. “You can’t be great if you’re not enthusiastic. You’ve got to love what you do, and she loves what she does.”
Hayes’ joy conveyed the extent to which she overcame long odds to reach this point in her life’s journey.
Her early years were bleak as she grew up in a Waterbury public housing project, and would have quit school if it weren’t for her teachers in the same community where she now works as an educator.
“No one in Jahan’s family had gone to college,” President Obama said in honoring her. “No one at home particularly encouraged education. She lived in a community of poverty and violence, high crime and low expectations. And drugs were more accessible than degrees.”
“As a teenager, Jahana became pregnant and wanted to drop out of school. But her teachers saw something in her. And they gave her an even greater challenge, and that was to dream bigger and to imagine a better life. And they made sure she was college material and that she had the special gift to improve not only her own condition, but those around her.”
Earlier, before she had the chance to introduce the presidnet, Hayes, 44, the first Waterbury teacher to be named a Connecticut State Teacher of the Year, spoke of the need to foster a vocation for teaching in students, especially minorities.
“That is what teaching is about: the passion, the commitment, the joy, the stories,” Hayes said. “As educators, we have a unique opportunity to share our empowering stories with students and communities and elevate this profession.”
Later, speaking with Rhode Island Catholic, Hayes offered a message of hope to students everywhere who are growing up now as she did, ready to quit school because they feel as if they have no future.
They need to know that despite the problems they are facing, “It’s not the end of your journey,” Hayes said.
In his remarks, President Obama spoke about the state of education in the nation today.
He explained how the Recovery Act kept more than a quarter million teachers in the classroom despite the country being in the throes of a crippling economic recession.
“One of the first things we did, in the middle of the worst economic crisis in generations, when states and cities were slashing their budgets, was to keep more than 300,000 educators in our kids’ classrooms,” the president said.
He also spoke of the increased availability of preschool programs across the U.S., from 38 states offering them seven years ago to 46 today, leaving only four states unserved.
The president spoke of his strong advocacy for expanding Science Technology Engineering and Math education.
“We’re making remarkable progress towards my pledge to train 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021 thanks to the great work of “100K in 10” — which, with new commitments to prepare 70,000 more teachers, I just want to announce today this is a goal that we are going to achieve on time. We’re on our way,” he said.
Rhode Island State Teacher of the Year Tracy Lafreniere, who is a K-3 Reading Specialist at North Smithfield Elementary School, where she has taught for 18 years, stood on the risers with the other Teachers of the Year close to both Hayes and President Obama.
Following the ceremony, she sat down with Rhode Island Catholic in the White House Press Room to talk about her honor and her experiences as a teacher.
Lafreniere was nominated for the honor by Carolyn Frayne, who retired last year as principal of her school. Frayne had a very good sense of the person she was recommending, especially since was Lafreniere’s fifth grade teacher.
“It’s such an honor,” Lafreniere said. “You’re here representing all of the great educators in your state. There are so many amazing teachers that I know and any one of them could be in this spot, and it’s just such an honor that it’s me.”
Lafreniere, 40, said she is fortunate to be working in a career that gives her so much personal satisfaction in helping others.
“This is it, this is what I’ve wanted to do since I was little,” she said of teaching.
“My satisfaction comes from the fact that even when something is hard to learn, they can absolutely overcome it. I’m able to instill that confidence in them. I always say that it’s magic when you actually teach a child how to read and they get it, it’s indescribable.”
Lafreniere and her husband, Eric Katz, have a son, Ivan, 18 months, and a second child due in September.
She said that she and many fellow teachers were teary-eyed at the emotional experience of making the final leg of their journey, leaving their family members behind at the hotel as their bus pulled away to take them to the White House.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we’ll never get this again,” she said.