Bathed in the dusky haze of the afternoon sun, the smell of freshly mowed grass hovering as an undeniable harbinger of spring, the University of La Verne baseball and softball teams on April 8 don...
Professor Cleveland Hayes pushes his students hard, but with an 80-year legacy of teachers in the family, he may be one who was born to be an educator.
Dr. Cleveland Hayes acknowledges that, at least to begin with, many of his students at the University of La Verne wouldn’t rush to vote for him as professor of the year.
His methods are a little different and they’re demanding. But he says he loves that moment — generally a few weeks into the semester — when he sees that they get it. It’s then they’re exposed to a whole new way of thinking.
“I have a lot of deprogramming I have to do first,” said Hayes, who has been a teacher of future teachers in La Verne’s College of Education & Organizational Leadership for the past six years. “A lot of students, especially the undergrads, grew up in a culture where there is only one right answer: A, B, C or D. Well, the right answer may not be A, B, C, or D. It may be F or G. So when I do that, it upsets them, until they get it. Then, the light bulb comes on and they go, ‘Oh, now I see where you’re going.’ ”
This is something different than most college students are used to, as is the higher education stage for Hayes. A high school science teacher in Salt Lake City for several years, Hayes now works through a different dynamic in making a connection with his students.
“I think relationships should happen organically,” Hayes said. “ So, I don’t force myself on my students, which sometimes makes me come across as arrogant or rude or unavailable. Now, I’m very, very explicit about that when I talk about that, the very first day of class. By the time we are comfortable with each other, the semester is over. In high school, when we’d come back from Christmas, relationships had been built naturally, and they would kind of move forward.”
Hayes found himself teaching high school science in Salt Lake City after growing up in Mississippi, an African American, face-to-face with all kinds of social issues. His educational background is in social foundation — race, class, gender, sexuality, language, immigration — which was the focus of his doctorate and continues to be his area of specialty in research.
“Cleveland has a strong commitment to preparing new teachers who are culturally competent and sensitive to diversity, equity, and social justice,” said Mark Goor, Dean of the CEOL at La Verne. “These commitments sometimes make him a passionate speaker when talking with other educators and colleagues. He also brings a unique perspective from being a third generation educator from the south where prejudice defined how educators were treated.”
Hayes said he originally set out to become a doctor, then decided to pursue a teaching career, as his mother and father and both grandmothers had. Once he made the switch, he found teaching came easily.
“When I first started teaching, people were amazed that I had such limited experience,” Hayes said. “I knew what I was getting into when I went into the profession. At the time, we probably had 80 years of experience teaching in the family. I love what I do. So, loving it and having that background knowledge of the profession made the transition a whole lot easier.”
But Hayes’ passion lies in research, and he tries to find time each week to delve further into today’s social issues. He is collaborating on two books, one focusing on race in higher education, the other about exemplary black teachers in the South. He also has a few observations about whether Southern California really is the melting pot of many cultures it is supposed to be.
“Yes and no,” he said. “The no part of it is, you have pockets, so when you have these real segregated communities, I don’t consider that melding very well. The ‘yes’ part of it is you get offered a lot of diversity, which I like.”
Goor says such outspokenness is what makes Hayes such a strong educator.
“Cleveland brings a passion from diversity and justice to every conversation,” Goor said. “His beliefs align perfectly with the university’s mission and with the guiding principles of the College of Education & Organizational Leadership. He is a strong voice for fairness and passion for change.
“In six years, Cleveland has quickly distinguished himself nationally with recognition from the American Education Research Association as a scholar in the area of critical race theory and social justice. He always attracts a group of dedicated students who want to learn as much as they can from him and participate in his research.”
Away from the classroom, Hayes enjoys scuba diving and also runs half-marathons. In addition, one weekend a month he flies to Washington state to serve in the Air Force Reserve as a hospital administrator. He has done that for the past 17 years.
But he always returns to the classroom, ready to train tomorrow’s teachers. It’s not always as easy as A-B-C, and getting his students to think for themselves and understand that there may very well be many right answers is the first step toward their mastery as educators.
“I want them to be able to synthesize information, process information, ultimize information, present information, and basically try to create that conversation where you can be talking about anything at an intellectual level,” Hayes said. “In my mind, especially with the pre-service teachers, I think a pre-service teacher should be able to put together a lesson, on the fly, in five minutes or less — which I can do — and I want them to be able to do that. You need to be flexible. If something’s not working, you need to be able to change it. So there is no necessarily right or wrong answer.”