The ‘Oscars’ of education: Toffolon teacher receives prestigious state award

Toffolon Elementary School teacher Michael Zaba gets a red carpet reception on Wednesday, Jan. 23. Students and faculty celebrated Zaba for being named as this year’s Milken Educator Award, a prestigious state teaching award at an event attended by Gov. Ned Lamont and Connecticut’s commissioner of education Dr. Dianna R. Wentzell. (Photo by Janelle Morelli)



Michael Zaba, a Plainville art teacher, was presented with a $25,000 unrestricted Milken Educator Award on Wednesday, Jan. 23, by Connecticut Commissioner of Education Dr. Dianna R. Wentzell, and Milken Family Foundation Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley.

“Mr. Zaba is the kind of teacher that every parent wants for their child, every principal wants for their school, and every student wants in front of their classroom,” said Toffolon School principal Lynn Logoyke. “He is student-centered. He is inspirational. He is very talented, and he’s very reflective. But, above all, he’s very humble.”

Zaba, who has been the art teacher at Toffolon for 13 years and head teacher for the past five years, said the award was a surprise to him. He described the work he has been doing at Toffolon as a group effort, saying all of the Toffolon teachers, “have helped develop some great programs in the school.”

“I want to share this with the community and parents that they have such wonderful children, and it’s an honor to work with them,” said Zaba. “It’s an honor to inspire them. And, I wake up every day wanting to come to work.”

The work Zaba has done was why he was chosen to receive this award, as teachers cannot apply or being nominated for a Milken Educator Award—which has been described as the “Oscars of Teaching.”

Toffolon Elementary School teacher Michael Zaba, center, poses with Gov. Ned Lamont during his award celebration last Wednesday. (Photo by Janelle Morelli)

Foley explained that the Milken Family Foundation works with the state department to compile their list of potential winners. After reviewing the information provided by each state, the Foundation determines who they “believe represent the top one percent of the teaching profession out of three million teachers.”

Foley said Zaba’s “innovative practices” is part of why he was chosen as the only Connecticut teacher to receive the Milken Award for the 2018-19 year.

“He’s very innovative in that he works with the math teachers; he works with the science teachers; he works with the media specialists; he works with the PE teachers, so he’s looking at education that is integrated across all of the subjects,” said Dr. Foley. “And we know that he’s a role model. You saw hundreds and hundreds of people in this room stand up [for] a standing ovation. That means his influence on students, his colleagues, and the community is immense and life changing.”

Wentzell said it was “such a wonderful honor” to see Zaba receive the award. “We are so fortunate in Connecticut because we’ve had Milken Award winners just about every year,” all of whom “really represent all of the fabulous public educators that we have here in Connecticut.”

“One of the things that is really exciting is demonstrated here at Louis Toffolon School, and that’s [the move] towards personalized learning and helping our students make choices about the way they demonstrate their learning,” said Dr. Wentzell regarding education trends for the upcoming year. “There’s a high level of rigor combined with a lot of personal choice for students about how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. We’re really excited about that.”

Gov. Ned Lamont said that education will be one of his priorities during his administration, as he plans to be “a champion for teachers and teaching everyday.”

“It’s not every state that gets a Milken Educator Award, and Connecticut is special,” said Lamont. “We have amazing teachers here. We’ve always had the best schools and the best trained workforce in the world – that’s what makes Connecticut a special place, where people want to be and grow a business.”

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Toffolon teacher Michael Zaba accepts the 2019 Milken Award. From left, Zaba, Milken Family Fondation senior vice president Dr. Jane Foley, Gov. Ned Lamont, and Connecticut’s commissioner of education Dr. Dianna R. Wentzell. (Photo by Janelle Morelli)