Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Miki Cacace (HI '19)

May 6, 2020

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Miki Cacace (HI ’19) teaches coding because it fosters innovation, communication, collaborating and creative thinking, skills essential for the 21st century: “Some of the careers my students will pursue haven’t even been created yet.” She won Hawaii’s 2019-20 Milken Educator Award at Ewa Makai Middle School in Ewa Beach on March 10, 2020.

Milken Family Foundation: You started a coding class and computer science program after years as a math teacher. What was the biggest challenge in creating this new curriculum?

Miki Cacace (HI ’19): Figuring out what curriculum and skills I wanted to teach and what was most beneficial for my students to learn. This was a brand new elective. I researched what other middle schools were teaching and signed up for multiple professional developments and trainings. I was able to network with others and create a cohesive curriculum that would expose students to coding and 21st century skills.

After a year, multiple students wanted to continue learning about coding, so I had a meeting with my principal to see if I could establish an advanced coding class. This year was the first year we offered advanced coding. The curriculum for this course allowed students to use their prior knowledge from the first course to figure out ways to use coding in the physical world. I created a curriculum where students would apply what they learned to the real world and build prototypes to help people in our school and community.

MFF: Why is it important that your students learn coding and programming skills?

Miki: Technology has advanced and evolved immensely. Some of the future careers many of my students will pursue haven’t even been created yet. That’s why I wanted to teach coding. Coding allows students to innovate, communicate, problem-solve, collaborate, and be creative thinkers, which are skills they will need in the 21st century. It’s also important for students to understand the technology they use and start thinking about how technology impacts their lives. Students should be able to learn something new in my classroom and then find places in their lives where the material will be applicable to their futures.

MFF: How did you end up in education?

Miki: Growing up, I never thought that I would be a teacher. I always wanted to be a graphic designer and loved to create visually appealing pieces of art on the computer. During high school I worked at my mom’s preschool and an elementary school after school, but it wasn’t really my thing back then.

After college, I worked at an advertising agency for a year. It wasn’t what I had thought it would be like. Making a career change from advertising to teaching was a tough decision, especially after experiencing a life-changing event. I lost a loved one to suicide. Coming close to death really put things into perspective.

After self-reflection and through personal growth, I realized that my purpose in life was to make a difference and impact the lives of others. That’s why I became a teacher. I wanted to be a positive influence on today’s youth and help them build the necessary skills to maneuver through life successfully, both in and out of the classroom.

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MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.

Miki: My first year of teaching was quite challenging and yet very rewarding. I remember arriving at school a couple weeks after the school year started because I was an emergency hire. I got a position to teach art to middle schoolers at Kalakaua Middle School. I had no real teaching experience and had just started my master’s program. As I walked into the office, I received my keys and was given a map to my classroom. I found my classroom and opened the door to a whole new world. It was tough figuring out what to teach without a curriculum and I didn’t find a closet full of art supplies until the second semester.

Meeting my students for the first time was an incredible moment filled with nervousness and happiness. I was afraid of what they would think of me and wondered if they would listen to me as a teacher because I literally looked like a student. I was greeted with smiling faces and began to build relationships with my students from day one. After that year, I continued to keep in touch with some of them and would get frequent visits. I went to their graduation ceremonies when they finished high school and they remembered me. It was such an amazing feeling!

Teaching multiple classes of middle schoolers wasn’t as challenging as I had expected. I had a really supportive team of teachers helping me get through the year and my students were very accepting of me. Many of the other teachers and counselors were surprised that some of the behavioral students weren’t giving me problems and were opening up to me about their personal lives. As the year was coming to an end, I was really sad to leave my students and I knew that I was only there for a year because the regular art teacher was back. A month before school ended, my principal met with me and told me he didn’t want to lose me as a teacher and found me a position as an ELL teacher. I was thrilled that I would be able to see my students again the following year. A few years later, I was selected [by the Hawaii Milken Educators] as the 2011-12 Milken Teacher of Promise.

Talking about my day with my husband Rob also helped me get through my first year. Because he is also a middle and high school teacher, he could relate to the extra time and commitment teachers put in. He was very comforting and supportive as I started my new career and often joined me at school events. He has always been very understanding and I wouldn’t have been able to be the teacher I am today without him.

MFF: What do you like about middle school students?

Miki: I love everything about them! I originally thought I would end up teaching fourth grade. When I received an emergency hire position at a middle school, I had no idea where this journey would take me. I love teaching middle schoolers because I get to be part of their development into who they are and who they want to be. Middle school is a time where they are trying to see how they fit in and how to navigate some of the most difficult years of their lives. Hopefully I’ve been able to instill a growth mindset and help them learn how to persevere through problem-solving.

Middle schoolers are also very honest and funny. They’re able to understand my jokes and aren’t afraid to joke around with me as well. There are days when I laugh so hard I start crying. Their stories are very heartfelt and I enjoy listening to them share their experiences and emotions. They are very curious about the world around them and aren’t afraid to ask me for my opinion or perspective. I love being able to give them guidance and empower them when they need it the most. Building relationships with students and providing them with the social-emotional comfort they need is important to me.

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MFF: Who are your role models?

Miki: I’m very fortunate to have had many people contribute to who I am today as a teacher. I’ve had amazing professors from University of Hawaii and University of Phoenix who gave me the tools I needed to succeed. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve learned so much from all the educators, students, and parents I have worked with over the last decade. Being a member of the Alpha Delta Kappa Theta Chapter has provided me with valuable resources and relationships with some of the greatest women educators in Hawaii.

One of my favorite teachers growing up was Mr. Hashiro, my fifth grade teacher. His classroom was always welcoming and I felt very safe in our learning environment. He enjoyed getting to know us and wasn’t afraid to be himself. I remember how he would joke around about his eyesight and would often use his thick glasses and magnifying glass to read to us. He made learning fun and made sure that we were all happy. When we had an election and my name was missing from the ballot, he made sure to get it fixed and had our class redo the ballot with my name on it. That showed me how much he cared about me as a student.

I’ve also learned a lot from my parents because both of them were entrepreneurs. My mom started her own preschool and directed it for over 30 years. My dad was a mechanic and ran his own auto shop. Because of them, I learned how to persevere through challenges and never to give up on my dreams even if they seemed unattainable. Although my dad is no longer here, I still do everything to the best of my ability because he would always tell us, “If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all.” I always make sure to put my all in everything I do because of him.

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

Miki: I wasn’t expecting our assembly to be for the Milken Educator Award. We were told that we would have special guests coming but everything was kept a secret. The back parking lot at our school was blocked off so my friends and I started trying to figure out who was coming. Because March is Women’s History Month, we started Googling famous women who were advocates for women’s rights. The day before the assembly, we were so sure that Michelle Obama was coming to talk to our school about women’s rights.

When the assembly started, there were many people on stage, including Superintendent [Christina] Kishimoto, Governor [David] Ige and his wife [First Lady Dawn Amano-Ige], and [Hawaii State] Senator Kurt Fevella. Once they started talking about the impact of teachers, I knew right away that it was for the Milken Educator Award. Many colleagues and students pointed directly at me and I shook my head, believing that it wasn’t me. Before they revealed the name of the winner, I was thinking of the many teachers I work with who are absolutely amazing.

Once they said my name, I froze and was in complete shock! I couldn’t believe what was happening! It felt like a dream and I couldn’t move. I was shaking from head to toe and started crying. Thankfully my friend was standing right next to me and started hugging me. This helped break the ice and I could comprehend what was happening. As I looked around and walked up to the stage, my students were jumping for joy and everyone was cheering. I remember thinking to myself that I was glad that I dressed better than usual because I thought I would be meeting Michelle Obama.

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MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?

Miki: My students bombarded me with hugs and congratulatory messages after I was done with media interviews. As I walked through the halls, I saw tons of students with posters and cards that they made during lunch. I hugged so many students and they told me that they knew it was going to be me because I’m an amazing teacher.

I received tons of emails from former students and parents congratulating me and telling me that they were glad that everyone finally recognized what a great teacher I was. It was so nice to hear from former students who had graduated and told me that they knew all along that I was deserving of this Award. I also received numerous calls and messages on social media. It took me days to respond to everyone for their kind words and support. Being able to reconnect with students, parents, former teachers, classmates, family, and friends has been such a blessing, and I’m so grateful.

MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?

Miki: There are so many things I would like to do with my Award money, but the first thing that came to mind was Lasik eye surgery. As crazy as that sounds, it’s something that I’ve wanted for a very long time. Every time I tried to put money aside, I would spend it on school supplies or snacks for my students. The media wrote about it in the newspaper and Dr. Tyrie Jenkins reached out to me. She told me that she wanted to help me with this and would cover half of the cost. A patient of hers overheard her talking about it and he wants to pay for the other half. Because of Dr. Jenkins and her patient, I’m able to save some Award money for this procedure and give more back to my community.

I would like to give back to my community by creating a $5,000 scholarship for students at the high school my middle schoolers will feed into. This scholarship will provide one student with a $500 scholarship to be used towards college or a career in computer science. High school seniors will fill out an application and one student per year for 10 years will be chosen to receive this scholarship.

In addition to the scholarship, I would like to buy a virtual reality headset for my classroom and put some money away for my children’s future education. I want them to be able to go to whatever college they would like to attend or use the saved money to pursue a career they are passionate about. I would also like to use some money to get my husband a better car to commute to work in and a new smart phone for my mom. If I have money left over, I would like to purchase a better laptop for myself.

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

Miki: Success to me is being able to impact my students in a positive way and help them figure out who they are and where they fit in this world. My goal as a teacher has always been to create learning experiences that engage students to help them become the best they can be. I feel that it’s my responsibility to provide students with an environment where they can succeed at their own pace and build self-confidence through perseverance and problem-solving. If I’m able to do that for them, then I know that I have been successful.

A lot of students believe that success is defined by good grades, doing well on standardized tests, and a high GPA. I would hope that my students learn that success is the ability to set and achieve goals, develop a love of learning, and foster a growth mindset. I believe all three of these attributes, individually and in combination, reach far beyond the classroom and any particular content area. A love of learning is foundational for developing curiosity and a recognition that one is capable of growth. This allows them to possess a mindset that isn’t fixed, or limited. By learning to set goals, whether accomplished or not, students have an opportunity to improve, reflect, and learn how to overcome obstacles or challenges they may face in life.

MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?

Miki: I hope that my students remember how I made them feel, whether it was in the classroom or around campus. I believe that all students deserve to feel loved and cared for regardless of their background or prior experiences. I hope that when they reflect back on their time with me, they have a sense of comfort and joy knowing that they were genuinely cared for and accepted for who they are. I truly believe that building personal relationships is a key aspect in life.


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