Squeals and laughter filled the gym at Hansen Elementary School in Olympia.
Fifth-grade teacher Charleen Hayes grinned as she explained that rocket day – an afternoon in which students perform several experiments with Alka Seltzer-powered rockets – is one of her favorite days of the school year.
“I love this day,” she said. “It’s hectic and crazy, but it’s so much fun.”
Hayes, 49, recently was named Elementary Science Teacher of the Year by the Washington Science Teachers Association.
In addition to a title and certificate, she received $500 in cash and will get to attend an upcoming science teacher conference for free.
According to the school district, Hayes was recognized for “her excitement and enthusiasm for teaching science, effective delivery of scientific content and processes and promotion of science education beyond the classroom.”
“She’s a superstar,” said Hansen principal Ernie Rascon. “She’s very thorough with kids. She’s very patient with them.”
Three times a week, Hayes, a National Board Certified Teacher, dons a white laboratory jacket for her science classes.
She said she believes the fifth-grade science standards are too basic; that’s why many of her lessons incorporate scientific concepts and language that students wouldn’t typically see until seventh or eighth grade.
“I never underestimate what the kids can do, and they rise to that,” Hayes said.
In addition to rocket day, Hayes organizes a science fair and field trips for a salmon project. For a unit on energy, her students built solar ovens and baked pizzas inside as an experiment.
“Mrs. Hayes rocks,” said 11-year-old Raymond Martin. “She likes to do a lot of creative things.”
“I think she’s the best teacher I’ve ever had,” said 10-year-old Lily Mozipo. “She’s not like a normal teacher. She’s kind of crazy, but she’s fun to work with.”
“Mrs. Hayes is amazing,” added 11-year-old Jaylah White. “She teaches us so many things. I love her.”
Hayes considers herself “a newbie” because she has only taught for eight years.
Before that, she was an administrator at a private university in Oregon. She also spent more than a dozen years in the turf seed trade.
At 30, Hayes decided to go to college to become a teacher. But then her plans were put on hold because there were babies to raise.
After nearly 14 years of night classes, Hayes met her education goals. She did a principal internship at Hansen, and she’s interested in going into administration. But she also loves working in the classroom.
“I always wanted to do something that was good work and meaningful some way,” Hayes said. “I used to get up not wanting to go to work. Here, I get up going, ‘OK, what am I doing today?’”
She said one of the best parts of her job is introducing students to science. It’s a subject that reaches reluctant students; it’s about life and how everything works, Hayes said.
“I just love it. It’s honest, it’s facts,” she added. “I always tell the kids, it’s the only job besides weather man when you can be wrong all the time, and it’s OK.”