"The Four Agreements" is a Toltec philosophy that Michael Hayden uses almost daily in his classroom at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach.
"'Be impeccable with your word. Don't take anything personally. Don't make assumptions. Always do your best.' These four simple statements have a huge impact on my students' lives," said Hayden, a choir director who also teaches music appreciation.
The philosophy was subconsciously instilled in his mind from the day he was born in Greece to a shepherd whose family disowned her due to the pregnancy in 1957.
"I was put in an orphanage in Athens and adopted at 14 months to an American family," recalled Hayden, who grew up for the first five years in Virginia.
He was still a boy when his adopted mother passed away and his father remarried twice.
"By the time I was 11 years old, I was adopted from a Greek orphanage, experienced a parental death, a remarriage, a divorce, and another remarriage, ultimately creating a broken family," Hayden said. "The happy and nurturing parents who adopted me were gone. I was a gregarious, happy child who was told he was very special. I no longer felt special."
These events significantly shaped his teaching style, he said.
"I know what it is like to have a happy life and then lose it," Hayden said. "But because of my early upbringing with a wonderful loving couple from Kentucky and my Greek heritage, I remained that happy boy. Together, all of these experiences greatly influenced me to become a teacher who makes a difference in all my students' lives."
Hayden's love for music was inspired at age four, when he sat on the couch with his adoptive father watching shows like Lawrence Welk, Sing Along with Mitch and the King Family Show on television.
"I thought, I just love this; I thought it was the coolest thing to watch these people sing," Hayden recalled. "It made me very, very happy. It was such a joy."
His initial experience with music inspired a lifelong vocation for the 57-year-old, who has found work worldwide. His choirs have been featured in Carnegie Hall and the Walt Disney Concert Hall and have performed in the two-week International Festival of the Aegean on the island of Syros in his native Greece.
"In the United States, my choirs consistently take superior ratings in festival adjudications and place high in competitions," Hayden said. "I have graduates studying music and singing in choirs and a cappella groups in universities and colleges all around the country."
Over the years, Hayden has reaped numerous honors, including the 2011 U.S. Presidential Scholar Program Teacher Recognition Award from the U.S. Department of Education, and the 2013 Teacher of the Year from the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. He was also a nominee in 2013 for the National Grammy Music Educator Award.
"Undoubtedly, I am proud of these accomplishments -- but my teaching encompasses so much more," Hayden said.
"While I certainly build singers, what I really do is inspire and teach students to become their best self," he said. "Being my best self is a lesson I learned from my adopted parents. Using choral singing to pass this lesson on to my students is my greatest accomplishment."