Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Michael Zaba (CT '18)

March 14, 2019

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Art teacher Michael Zaba (CT ’18) goes to great lengths to tie the creative projects in his classroom to everything else his students are learning: “I love making interdisciplinary connections.” He won Connecticut’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award at Louis Toffolon School in Plainville on January 23, 2019.


Milken Family Foundation: You go to great lengths to connect your art lessons to other parts of the curriculum. What makes art a good vehicle for building overall learning skills?

Michael Zaba: Art gives my students a new and different avenue for learning. They tap into their critical thinking skills as they analyze works of art and compare and contrast artwork. Students are always problem-solving when mixing colors, measuring, dividing, adding, experimenting, and figuring out how to recreate a technique or style they have seen. It allows for creative thinking; students brainstorm ideas, create and design from their imagination, and question a piece of art’s purpose.

Art helps my students visualize and communicate the messages they want to share with the world. Students often develop self-awareness through assessing and analyzing their own work and others. It helps students make decisions, narrow their options, figure out what they like. Art allows me to reach students who struggle with academic concepts or strategies in a different way. By focusing their attention on visual images or representations, I can reinforce and introduce concepts from a variety of disciplines through the process of creating the artwork.

MFF: What brought you to education?

Michael: My experiences working with children at camp, and my high school art teachers. I began as a camper and evolved into a counselor. It was easy for me to make connections with students, making them feel comfortable trying new things in a new place. Being in charge of 10 children at an early age was a big responsibility.

At an early age, I found solace in the arts. I had a passion for drawing, cartooning and building—everything from sculptures made of scrap wood to designing forts with friends. My high school art teachers were the first to teach me a variety of formal art techniques and exposed me to different art styles and movements. I attended parochial school through my primary and part of my secondary schooling.

My high school art teacher, Mr. Paul Baylock, opened the door to a world of different styles and genres of art. I remember his room as a safe place where I could escape and create. I never really thought of art as a career until Mr. Baylock entered my artwork into local exhibitions and contests, and I began winning. I would occasionally receive a congratulatory letter for something I knew nothing about, only to find out later that he had submitted my work. I was always thankful for that—it gave me a great deal of confidence at a time where I needed it most. I’d like to think those small acts, the environment he created and the connections he developed helped shape the teacher and person I strive to be today.

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MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?

Michael: Teaching in an elementary setting has allowed me to instill a love of learning. Other than their parents, I am one of the first people my students spend their day with. It’s our responsibility to ensure that we develop trust and positive rapport with our students, creating a safe and exciting environment for learning.

In the art room, I love that I can expose children to a variety of avenues for creating art and incorporating skills from other disciplines. My favorite moments are their epiphanies, like when they realize they applied a math skill to create their art: “We just did this in class!” I like finding a variety of ways to link and reinforce concepts taught in class to what they do in the art room. It’s even more exciting when my colleagues make connections in the classroom to art. I love making interdisciplinary connections.

Another highlight of working with elementary students is instilling an “I can” attitude, encouraging them to look at assignments with enthusiasm, tackle challenging tasks, and look at situations in a positive light. Students at this age are very resilient and less apprehensive about trying new things and confronting challenges when they’re presented in a positive and exciting manner.

I didn’t choose elementary school at first. I began my career split between two middle schools. Being the last hire in a district makes you susceptible to constant changes dictated by budgetary needs and population changes in schools. My first few years of teaching really made me flexible and reflective. I was on a cart, shared a classroom, worked out of a closet, and traveled among four schools each week. Those experiences really helped me adapt to many and any situations, where I taught, whom I taught. One of the hardest parts of being so transient was the inability to establish a home and meaningful relationships and connections, not only with the students I taught but with other students at the schools. I have been at Toffolon going on 14 years, and I love what I do. Every day I am given the opportunity to help students see things in new ways through art.

MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?

Michael: One of my most important role models is my principal, Lynn Logoyke. She has always supported and encouraged my ideas and initiatives. She has taught me to look at teaching and leading through a larger scope, seeing the big picture and planning ahead for our student achievement and success. Mrs. Logoyke has helped me embrace teaching the whole child, focusing not only on academics but on the social, emotional, physical and developmental aspects of our students. She has demonstrated how to foster a positive school climate and professional school culture. Lynn has cultivated my management skills and entrusted me with school initiatives, after-school programs, scheduling, purchasing and heading committees. I am grateful and honored to work with such a knowledgeable professional and an exceptional leader.

A favorite teacher from my undergraduate work was James Buxton, my sculpture professor. He had a great sense of humor and could usually get a point across with just a look. He was more consultative than directive, allowing me to take charge of my learning. He encouraged my interests in stone carving and welding sculptures. Professor Buxton was strict on attendance, but not to be punitive. He understood the importance of collaboration and peer interactions in the creative and learning process.

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MFF: What stands out from your first year of teaching?

Michael: I was split between two middle schools. In the first one, I had to transform a regular education classroom into an art room, without a sink. As you can imagine I had to be a little creative in finding ways for students to clean their supplies and maintain a safe environment. Through a great deal of trial and error, I developed a system of cleaning in buckets and drying artwork on makeshift shelving scavenged from other classrooms and the basement storage room.

In the second middle school, I transformed an old science lab into an art room. At least I had two sinks! The interesting part was that all the tables were stationary, bolted to the floor. I became very creative with seating arrangements. Our curriculum was always a week away from being completed. The students were tough, coming from a lower socioeconomic background with problems and situations I couldn’t fathom dealing with at 12 and 13 years old. My classroom management was a work in progress. The lack of materials and supplies was frustrating, but I became very creative at acquiring supplies from friends and families. Most of the time I ended up buying the things I needed myself.

Eventually I found ways of making connections and developing lasting relationships through creating art and simple conversations. I learned that it took time for my students to develop trust in me and to understand that I truly cared about their achievement and success. Art allowed my students to express themselves. They had creative freedom and learned while having fun. My class became a safe place where students didn’t feel heavy academic pressures. The students who struggled in other disciplines found success in art through drawing, painting and sculpting. Looking back, my first year really taught me the importance of making connections with my students, having empathy, and taking the time to build relationships.

MFF: Tell us about the Day of Play and Cardboard Challenge.

Michael: The Cardboard Challenge is based on Caine’s Arcade, a working arcade created by a young boy out of cardboard boxes from his dad's auto shop. The challenge is for children to use their imagination and creativity to build something out of cardboard and share it with their classmates during a designated “Day of Play.” Students can create a game, artwork, costume, anything they can imagine. The only rule is that their creations must be made from cardboard and recycled materials, plus tape, glue, string, and paint. Students work independently or as teams. All the work has to be done at home. On the Day of Play, all the cardboard creations are displayed for students to enjoy and play with.

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MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?

Michael: I was honored, humbled, astonished, speechless, confused, panicked, ecstatic, guilty, suspicious, happy, proud, grateful, and overwhelmed. Mostly overwhelmed—I have never enjoyed the spotlight. I guess I would consider myself a producer or director, less of an actor.

During the assembly and the sharing of Dr. [Jane] Foley’s secret, I remember listing in my head many of my colleagues who deserved such a great honor. When they announced my name, everything felt surreal. To tell you the truth, I almost passed out from panic and fear. Did they really say “Michael Zaba”? Do I really have to stand up in front of all my students, peers, and TV cameras? Then a good friend nudged me and smiled, saying “Get up there!”

Seeing all my students, peers, administrators, cheering for me was such an ecstatic feeling. I guess that was when the guilt crept in. Why me? I work with so many hardworking, passionate, innovative, kind teachers. I wanted to share this moment with everyone; that’s just who I am. Because I’m known as the school prankster, I did have a moment of suspicion. If this turned out to be a prank, I don’t think I’d be able to top it. But phew … it was real!

Next, pride set in. Pride in my students and all their hard work. Pride in my school, my colleagues and my principal. I was grateful to represent my district. Then, standing next to Governor [Ned] Lamont, I realized that I would have to speak in front of everyone, even the cameras. That’s when I got anxious. But even with the nerves I was able to get my message across clearly. I am very appreciative and grateful for the Award and the life-changing surprise.

MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?

Michael: They were happy and excited for me. Our high school jazz band performed at the assembly and there were so many former students congratulating me. That was an amazing feeling. The students were so proud of me for receiving the Award. They kept asking what I would do with the money—as you can imagine, they had many suggestions. The building and community were buzzing, saying they never knew teachers could receive such accolades. It really showed the students that teaching is a valued profession.

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MFF: Any plans for your $25,000 Award?

Michael: I would like to donate part of it to our new STEAM lab. We will be repurposing an old computer lab into a space for NGSS science experiments, coding and robotics, maker activities, art, and interactive math centers. I will also use some of the Award to continue my studies in educational leadership and contribute to my son's college savings.

MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?

Michael: Success for me as a teacher is when my students set a goal and meet it. I like to think of myself as a guide, a coach, a director of my student's education. Success comes in many forms. It’s when my students discover their own abilities and can apply skills and concepts for solving problems, not only in art but in other disciplines. When students run into a challenge or make a mistake and learn from it, they grow, adapt and show perseverance. Success is not throwing in the towel but sticking through the hard times, showing grit. Success is working with others and communicating effectively to accomplish a common goal or task. At the same time, success is defined by my students thinking independently, reaching into their repertoire of strategies, and thinking outside the box to find a way to solve a problem and reach their objective.

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