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Connecticut High School Teacher Earns Top Education Honor From President Obama

Obama Honors 2016 National Teacher of the Year 1:55

A Connecticut teacher was honored Tuesday with the highest honor from the White House: the National Teacher of the Year award.

Jahana Hayes, a social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn., was lauded by President Barack Obama with a "Crystal Apple" for her selection as America's leading educator.

Other teachers representing each state were also invited to the celebration, organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers to coincide with National Teacher Appreciation Day.

Hayes gushed with all the energy, enthusiasm and excitement that's made her such a standout in the classroom.

Image: President Obama Honors the Teachers of the Year
President Barack Obama, right, honors the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes, left, and finalists in the East Room of the White House in Washington on May 3, 2016. Olivier Douliery / EPA

"It's a little surprising (she) got this award because she's shy and lacks enthusiasm," Obama joked as Hayes clapped her hands, pumped her arms and struggled to contain her glee as the president explained why she received this year's prize.

For the past 11 years at John F. Kennedy, Hayes has taught U.S. and world history, roots of American citizenship, and civics and geography. But some of the most memorable lessons she's passed along to her students are much more basic: How to overcome the daily challenges of a difficult life.

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"Her principal says she gets through to students because she remembers what it's like to be one of them," Obama said during the festivities.

Hayes grew up in public housing surrounded by poverty, violence and low expectations. She became a teenage mom and almost dropped out of school, but went on to become the first in her family to go to college.

"Like every teacher, I started as a student, and like many I know what it feels like to have a dream and exist in an environment where nothing is expected to thrive," Hayes said, choking back tears.

"I know what it feels like to struggle to find sunlight and constantly be met by concrete barriers," she added.

Hayes also achieved the honor because of her tireless work after school: She organized an event to raise money for cancer research after learning seven of her students had lost a parent to the disease. Hayes has also led walks to fight autism, efforts to feed the homeless and drives to register voters.

In addition, she heads the school theater project, and even won the school's "Dancing With the Stars" competition.

After receiving her crystal apple, Hayes reflected on the moment in the spotlight with her colleagues and the president. She said she felt "blessed — completely and totally blessed."

And what does she hope to achieve armed with the unexpected attention and acclaim?

"I want to start a dialogue where people know that it's not just about what happens in the classroom — it's about communities and families working together to educate kids," she told NBC News.

And she made this pitch for her often-beleaguered profession: "I think people have a traditional idea of what teachers look like," she said, "and I think my message is everybody has a gift and everyone can contribute to education."