(Via Star Advertiser)
Michelle Kay knew early on in life that she wanted to be a teacher. She hoped she could play a positive role in the lives of children.
“As a kid, we all have our problems that we go through, and I felt as though sometimes I was seeking attention and nobody saw me, nobody saw me trying to reach out for help,” the Kalakaua Middle School science teacher said. “I decided at a young age that I wanted to be there to help others that didn’t know how to ask for help.”
Kay says she “lives, breathes and eats” at the Kalihi school, putting in long hours to help her 150 eighth-grade students with everything from science fair projects to preparing for robotics competitions.
She’s credited with piquing students’ interest in science programs since joining the school in 2011, and going out of her way to establish relationships with families at Kalakaua Middle, which has a high immigrant student population and where 7 out of 10 students come from low-income families.
“Her commitment to touching the hearts of students and supporting them in their learning is infectious,” said Principal Lorelei Aiwohi. “Michelle has brought immense promise to the students who have the opportunity to be in her world.”
Kay, 36, was surprised Monday during a schoolwide assembly when she was named a recipient of the Milken Educator Award, a national prize that recognizes excellence in education and comes with $25,000 in cash.
Before Kay was announced as the winner, Jane Foley, a senior vice president with the Milken Family Foundation, built up excitement among the more than 1,000 students packed into the school’s cafeteria.
“One of the best teachers in the entire country is here, in your school,” Foley told the crowd. “You can’t apply. We don’t accept nominations. You don’t find us. We find you.”
Amid vociferous cheers, Gov. Neil Abercrombie revealed an unsuspecting Kay as the award recipient. The students’ screams were so loud, Kay said afterward that she didn’t hear her name called out.
“I heard an ‘M,’ and then everything kind of went blank after that,” she recalled.
She credited her students for making her work fulfilling.
“I feel completely honored. It’s a profession that I’ve been doing because of my love, and it’s nice to be recognized but … I can’t be a good teacher without my awesome students,” she said. “I definitely try to go well above and beyond my duty as a teacher to be there for my students in any shape, form or fashion.”
Asked how she plans to spend her prize money, which comes with no strings attached, Kay said an upcoming robotics competition in California comes to mind.
She’ll be taking five of her students to the VEX Robotics World Championships in Anaheim, Calif., next month to represent Hawaii against their top-ranked peers in the U.S. and from countries including Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom.
“The first idea I thought of was, ‘Oh, maybe I can pay for the airfare,'” Kay said. “The money that I do have, I always seem to give it to my students in one way or the other, so for sure it’s going to be going back to our community here in Kalihi and back to our students.”
Originally from Illinois, Kay moved to Hawaii 14 years ago, drawn to the islands by her love for the ocean and marine biology. She previously taught at Dole Middle and Jefferson Elementary schools.
“I knew that I was born to be a teacher,” she said, “because I understood the struggles that happen as kids. I’ve been there. I’ve been through it, and I wanted to be a teacher that I never had.”
In all, 40 secondary educators will be awarded for the 2013-14 school year, but Kay is the only Hawaii recipient this year. Seventy-one Hawaii educators have received Milken Educator Awards totaling $1.77 million since 1990.