Carolyn Hays sponsors Bryant High School's Partners Club, which promotes relationships between students with and without disabilities. She's been a teacher for 33 years.

Carolyn Hays never pictured herself as a teacher when she was young. But after high school, Hays landed a job with the Conway Human Development Center, where she helped young adults learn to do tasks that most take for granted.

This job showed Hays that she could make a difference in the lives of others, simply by doing something that came naturally to her. And while working there, she quickly realized her calling — helping teach and guide young people with developmental disabilities.

Thirty-three years later, that calling has turned into a passion that lingers long after the final busload of students departs Bryant High School after a busy day of teaching. Hays has been teaching with the Bryant School District for 28 years and before that, she taught in North Little Rock for five.

“The most fulfilling part would be when you’ve worked really really hard with the student, and you see it click,” Hays says. “You see that light go off and they can do it. You see how happy they are and you feel their pride.”

Hays works with students who have a range of developmental disabilities. She teaches all subjects, but also focuses on functional life skills, which will help them become as independent as possible as adults.

While teaching special education isn’t always a walk in the park, Hays has had many moments in her career that make the bad days worth it. One story involved a boy she taught in elementary school who had a tendency to act out in the classroom. During Hays’ time teaching him, he went from being in a self-contained classroom to only needing a few resource classes. Years later, he visited Hays’ classroom and she asked him why he had behaved so badly toward other teachers.

“He said, ‘Because they let me,’” Hays says. “And just before he walked out the door, he said, ‘Mrs. Hays, thank you for loving me enough to make me mind.’ It still brings tears to my eyes. Because a lot of times, the teachers and parents will feel sorry for the students. But the more you expect, the more you’re going to get from the kids. And that’s the key to teaching.”

Hays is also the sponsor of Bryant High’s Partners Club, which invites students without disabilities to participate with special education students, helping them play sports and learn life skills. The club has a unified basketball team that competes through Special Olympics and won state in the AAA high school division last year. The club plays volleyball, basketball, floor hockey, track and field, and bowling.

“In the past, some of the partners would just take their picture with the student and go, ‘Oh look what I’m doing,’ Hays says. “But it’s not that way anymore. The partners know the students and when they pass them in the halls, they give them high fives. It’s really helped our school be more inclusive.”

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