Teaching alumna Taylor Thai in her classroom at the Donovan Elementary School in Randolph, MA
Taylor Thai couldn’t understand why administrators at her school had hastily organized an assembly for the last day of March.
“They told us it was for perfect attendance,” she recalls. “I just went. I had no clue that anything was happening.”
But the attendance story was a ruse. Instead, faculty, staff and students had gathered for a special announcement that Thai had received a 2021-22 Milken Educator Award, accompanied by an unrestricted $25,000 prize.
Surrounded by cheering students and educators, Thai was thrilled and almost overcome with disbelief.
“I was so surprised,” she says. “It was just surreal.”
The Milken Educator Awards is the nation’s preeminent teacher recognition program, often hailed as the “Oscars of Teaching.” Thai is among more than 60 educators nationwide who will receive a Milken Educator Award during the 2021-22 school year and the sole recipient from Massachusetts.
The award was presented to Thai by Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Deputy Commissioner Regina Robinson and Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley.
Personal story guides passion for students
Thai works at the Donovan Elementary School in Randolph, MA, where she teaches kindergarten and first grade, with a special focus on English language acquisition. When she first began working at the Donovan, the school didn’t have a program for English Language Learners (ELLs). Thai worked with the English Learner Department to create a district curriculum and collaborated with general education teachers on lessons that incorporate English as a second language instruction.
As the child of Vietnamese immigrants, Thai has long understood the challenges experienced by ELLs. She remembers being accidentally placed in an ESL class in elementary school and serving as an unofficial translator for a 4th grade classmate who had just arrived from Vietnam. At the Donovan, where students speak more than 17 different languages, she rejoices in the opportunity to use STEM classes as hands-on language learning opportunities for her ELL students and she places a high value on students not only learning English but retaining and developing the language that they speak at home.
In addition to leading Donovan’s ELL team, Thai mentors colleagues, served on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s teacher advisory cabinet and received the department’s InSPIRED fellowship, to help increase diversity in the state’s educator ranks.
A calling for the classroom
Becoming an educator wasn’t always part of Thai’s plans. As an undergraduate, she studied law at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and worked in several law firms after graduation, but she’d always had a penchant for teaching.
“When I was little, I’d force my friends to play school, and I was always the teacher,” she remembers. “I’ve always tutored kids. It’s so fulfilling, so rewarding. I just love it.”
Unsatisfied by her work in law, she started reaching out to teachers she knew and volunteering to come observe them in their classroom.
“It was so great. I wasn’t getting paid, but I really loved being there,” she recalls. “And I was thinking, ‘What’s my next step?’”
She’d heard good things about Lesley’s Graduate School of Education and applied to pursue her M.Ed. She was excited and inspired by the classes she took and buoyed by the wealth of classroom experience she gained during her student teaching.
“I didn’t come from an education background, and when I left Lesley I felt very prepared,” she says.
She still keeps in touch with her mentor teacher, and she’s also maintained strong relationships with many of her Lesley friends, most of whom are now teachers.
“We still have that connection,” she says. “We still talk; we always ask each other for ideas and feedback.”
She’s forged strong ties at the Donovan too and deeply values the supportiveness and collaboration she’s found with her fellow educators, especially during the ups and downs of the pandemic.
“I have a great team here in Randolph,” she says. “They’ve been my rock.”
With the announcement of the Milken Award, the enduring impact that Thai’s teaching has made on the community is even more apparent. She’s been moved by how many families of former students have reached out after hearing the news.
“I had their kids years ago and they’re coming up to me saying, ‘Oh, Mrs. Thai, congratulations, we’re so proud of you.’ It’s been amazing.”