Michelle Kay, a Kalakaua Middle science teacher, was surprised Monday by the Milken Family Foundation as Hawaii's latest recipient of the prestigious Milken Educator Award.
"Because of you guys I am a teacher and because of you guys I will continue to be a teacher as long as I can keep doing it," said Kay after her name was announced.
The national award recognizes outstanding excellence in education and includes a $25,000 cash prize.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie made the announcement to an unsuspecting Kay before more than 1,000 students gathered at an assembly celebrating achievement gains at Kalakaua Middle. Also in attendance were Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi and Dr. Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards and a 1994 Milken Educator recipient from Indiana.
"Our state is fortunate to have educators like Michelle Kay, who find innovative ways to teach and inspire our keiki," Gov. Neil Abercrombie said. "She is an outstanding role model for students, who are the future of Hawaii."
Superintendent Matayoshi praised Kay saying, "Admired by her peers and respected by her students, Michelle’s genuine care and unwavering focus to empower each child to thrive academically and in life make her truly deserving of this recognition."
"Our school, students and families are extremely fortunate to have a teacher as dedicated and passionate as Michelle," said Kalakaua Middle Principal Lorelei Aiwohi. "Her commitment to touching the hearts of students and supporting them in their learning is infectious. Michelle has brought immense promise to the students who have the opportunity to be in her world."
The prestigious honor, the only one presented in Hawaii this school year, will be bestowed upon up to 40 of America’s most outstanding secondary school educators in 2013-14.
Kay, who teaches eighth grade, has been instrumental in building interest and participation in science programs such as fairs, robotics and aquaponics since arriving at Kalakaua Middle in 2011. Colleagues say Kay’s passion and enthusiasm in the classroom, combined with relevant and engaging science lessons, motivate and challenge all students to keep improving.
She is credited for spearheading a VEX Bots Program that has captivated students and qualified the school for national and international events such as the 2013 VEX Robotics World Championships in Anaheim, Calif.
Students consider Kay a trusting and caring educator whose classroom doors stay open long after the bell rings, and even on weekends, so they may work on projects and assignments. Teaching at a school with a large immigrant population – and where seven out of every 10 students come from low-income backgrounds – Kay strives to forge lasting relationships with families by always being present at parent nights and sporting events.
"We all have our own problems that we go through and I feel as through sometimes I was seeking attention and nobody saw me. Nobody saw me trying to reach out for help and I decided at a young age that I wanted to be there to help others that didn't know how to ask for help," said Kay.
Kay also leads by example. Despite taking on additional, time-consuming leadership roles and responsibilities with the school’s accreditation team and Advancement Via Individual Determination program, Kay remains devoted to refining her craft by obtaining higher educational degrees and enrolling in professional development courses.
“Our public education system is at the heart of America’s promise and essential to safeguarding the American dream for future generations,” said Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation. “With research confirming that effective teachers represent the single most important school-related factor in raising student achievement, it is important to honor them, learn from them, and inspire more capable people to enter the profession. As the program’s motto extols, the future belongs to the educated.”
The Milken Educator Awards, founded by Lowell Milken to attract, retain and motivate outstanding talent to the teaching profession, is the nation’s preeminent teacher recognition program, dubbed the “Oscars of Teaching” by Teacher Magazine. Since 1987, the Milken Family Foundation, co-founded by Michael and Lowell Milken, has devoted more than $136 million in funding to the Milken Educator Awards, including over $64 million in individual awards to nearly 2,600 recipients plus powerful professional development opportunities and networking with leading education stakeholders.
When asked what she would do with the gift, Kay had a pretty good idea where some funds would go.
"To be honest the first idea is whew -- maybe I can pay for the airfare for our trip in April," said Kay. "But no, I'm speechless. The money that I do have I always end up giving to my students in one way or another, so for sure its going back to our community here in Kalihi and back to our students."
For more information, including a list of all former Hawaii and national award winners, please visit milkeneducatorawards.org.