The spark of enjoyment glimmers in Phyllis Hayes eyes as she greets her students.

“I still love my job as much as I did when I started,” said the Belen High School government and economics teacher. “I love the kids, and I love being in the classroom.”

After 26 years teaching, all in the Belen School District, Hayes’ peers and administrators honored the Belen native by naming her Teacher of the Year for the secondary level.

“I was excited and proud that the administration recognized me,” she said. “There are so many good teachers in our district and so many good things going on.”

Hayes has taught just about every social studies topic offered at Belen High School through the years. Everything from world history, United States history and global history to current events, sociology and psychology.

Through the years, Hayes has had to change her teaching style to the match the students.

“One of the main changes is that it is now a challenge to get kids to go to school. You have to make the class work pertinent to them to get them to come to class,” she said.

“You can’t just teach from the book or spoon feed the information to the students. They don’t sit still for it. You have to show the students how to research the topic and give them direction, to let them find the answers.”

In recent years, Hayes said, world and national news has sparked her students to ask questions about their government and country.

“The 2000 election was the best example of how the electoral college works,” she said. “I don’t think I could have taught it any better than them seeing it live at work. We had a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of the system, during the vote counting in Florida.”

Annually, Hayes joins fellow teacher Kevin Benavidez in sponsoring the seniors’ International Festival Day. All seniors participate in the project, which culminates with a food festival for the entire school.

“They start asking about International Festival Day the first day of school,” Hayes said of the project teacher Tim Cashman began 18 years ago. “I have already had a student reserve a country for next year.”

The students work in self-selected groups and research a country. They have to give presentations about the country and then prepare food from the country for their school mates.

“It is one of the last things they do as a class,” Hayes said. “It really pulls together all that they have learned during their 12 years of education.”

With the events of Sept. 11, the students had an additional questions to research this past year — “Why do so many other countries hate the United States?”

“Rather than trying to explain it to them, I directed them to find out during their research. It is amazing the resources they draw on in our community and on the Internet to learn about the country and its cultural attitudes.”

In addition to her classroom duties, Hayes said, she loves to sponsor extracurricular groups. “You get to see the students in a different light and get to know the other side of the student. When you sponsor an activity or group, you get to be a part of the positive part of education.”

Through the years, Hayes has sponsored everything from cheerleaders, MESA and ECHO Club to National Honor Society and has been class sponsor. She has also been the managing editor of the school paper and yearbook staffs.

One of the rewards of having taught 26 years is the lasting impact she has had on her students.

“One day, I was walking along a street in Los Angeles, and a young lady called my name. When she caught up with me, she asked if I was Mrs. Hayes from Belen. I said yes and asked her who she was. She said “Oh you don’t know me, but my husband had you in junior high. He got caught in traffic, but he wanted me to catch you so he can say hi.’ I had her husband the first year I taught back in the ’70s.”

Among her joys is seeing her former students now teaching with her. The list includes Kevin Benavidez and Chris Peralta, among others.

“It is a thrill when a former students, who is in college and getting ready to do their student teaching, ask to do their student teaching with me,” she said. “Recently, one student said ‘Please don’t retire. I want to work with you.’ That tells me they want to learn how to teach from me. That is quite an honor.”

Even though Hayes is close to qualifying to retire, she doesn’t see it in her near future. Even though her husband, Richard, has been retired for a couple of years, after 28 years of being a school counselor at Belen High.

“My daughter, Brandi, will be a senior next year, and I want to be around here for that,” she said. “Besides, I still love what I’m doing.”

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Jane Moorman