Arriving in the U.S. from Peru as an exchange student at age 16, Martha Hayden later studied at Loyola University where she got her undergraduate degree, went to graduate school at Georgetown University, and then completed her master’s degree. Hayden has worked in Venezuela at a university, served as a student advisor in New York, lived in Cranbury as a stay-at-home mom, and started the Cranbury Arts Council. Martha Hayden started teaching Spanish at PHS 12 years ago, and currently teaches Spanish 3, 4A, and 6A.
How would you compare your experiences as a student versus as a teacher?
I went to a school in Peru, and it was very much [about] memorization. I did very well, I was always a good student, but I don’t remember anything that I studied, so everything I do is completely different. Everything I do in my classroom is completely different [from] the way I studied. I want anything I teach to be meaningful, and to have people remember it and to make some kind of connection with it.
What are some new experiences you have spearheaded in the 12 years you’ve been at PHS?
The last three years, I worked on a course that was going to happen this year, called Transformative Education. I started with that initiative with some other teachers from the high school. It was an interdisciplinary course, but they canceled it this year so we never got to try out what we had created, so we’re very sad about that … I’ve [also] traveled with my students to Peru and we’ve done a lot of volunteer work and international development work.
What inspired you to begin the Transformative Education Program?
Thinking that you students are ready, that we have all the tools available, that research is already there, that you don’t have to go anywhere to find it. And that community development is something that we should all be thinking about. We live in this global world where there are a lot of problems and we should be thinking about our fellow men. I think that we have empathy for people and we should act on it and hopefully help people out if we can, with whatever skills we have.
Why did you decide to become a Spanish teacher?
Because that was the only way I could get a job, basically. My first year was very difficult. I remember sitting in the parking lot and shaking in the seat of the car, saying, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if I can go in,’ and crying and being really upset. It wasn’t an easy job, and I was kind of forced into it, because I didn’t really want to teach it. My husband was like, ‘You have to get a job like now,’ … and I got the job right away, so that’s how I ended up here. It was really difficult, but then I stopped making it a personal thing, and I started to enjoy the students and realizing that we can really change the world being a teacher. You can change it … You can contribute with your students, and make them become better human beings and more aware of what’s going on in the world.
Do you have any advice you always give to students?
If you think you want to do something, don’t ever just keep it to yourself. Whenever you have a dream, all the things you need will appear if it really comes from your heart.
What do you like most about teaching?
I find that I’m learning all the time from the students, and what little I put out, I feel that I get back so much more from the students in all kinds of ways. I have students that come to me, years later, and say, ‘Oh, Señora, I’m doing this and I’m doing that … You inspire me,’ … and I think that’s the power of teaching … It is a powerful and really wonderful place to be, to be a teacher. For me, who didn’t want to be a teacher and really fought it the first year so much, [I like] to know that it’s really not about me, that it’s about [students] … Part of it is knowing [that students] bring a lot to the table. The only thing [students] need is help sorting it out and seeing how all of it fits. That’s the nicest part about [teaching]. It’s a giving profession, and you have to be willing to be flexible and not [feel] like you own anything.
What do you think makes a student most successful?
First, to apply yourself. I think that everybody has a gift and [teachers are] here to help you find it. In some way or another, you’ll find it or something that you like. I think that everybody’s capable of giving something, and it’s just a matter of applying yourself, doing the work, and following through. That’s what really makes a student successful: the effort that you put in. Not just to memorize, but to understand and be inquisitive about it.
Is there someone who inspires you constantly?
My father. My father came from the rainforest in Peru … They only had school up until third grade, and he lived in a really remote area, and there were no roads … He said he remembers he didn’t have any lights in the room that he rented [in college] and he would sit underneath the lights on the street to try to study at night … And then later on, when he finally graduated as a dentist, he didn’t have any money to start an office so he joined the army … He applied for these scholarships for the United Nations and he got it. He went to the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan and studied there, finishing his dental degree. He also went to Denmark and he studied surgery there. He was an unbelievable person. He’s my model. He was unbelievable, and truly generous.
Do you have any plans for the future, both in and out of the classroom?
Inside of the classroom, I hope someday I can teach other teachers how to teach in a way that is a lot more fun for the students and teacher … in project-based and performance-based assessments. Outside of the classroom, I want to travel to more places, and when I’m older, to start a school for kids that need help.