Press Releases    All Press Releases


Fine Art Keeps the Big Picture in Focus, Earns Michael Zaba a $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Connecticut teacher brings art to everything and everything to art at Louis Toffolon School in Plainville

January 23, 2019

SANTA MONICA, Calif., — Grade school art teacher Michael Zaba knows that drawing in his students is more important than practice drawing in his classes at Toffolon Elementary School in Plainville, CT. That's why he employs art class as a cross-curricular opportunity to boost student success, regularly bringing in themes and concepts from geometry, physics, history, arithmetic, physical education—whatever it takes to engage and elevate students. Zaba's eclectic brand of high art comes with high expectations, and his students respond by developing creative skills that help them excel across a broad range of school subjects. And if students are having fun while absorbing useful concepts and developing new learning skills, that's even better.

But it was Zaba who experienced a jolt of edifying fun this morning at a surprise school assembly where he was presented with a Milken Educator Award by Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley, Governor Ned Lamont and Connecticut Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Dianna R. Wentzell. An appreciative Zaba was named a 2018-19 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. He is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Connecticut this year, and is among the 33 honorees for 2018-19.

The Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching," has been opening minds and shaping futures for over 30 years. Research shows teacher quality is the driving in-school factor behind student growth and achievement. The initiative not only aims to reward great teachers, but to celebrate, elevate and activate those innovators in the classroom who are guiding America's next generation of leaders. Milken Educators believe, "The future belongs to the educated."

As the school's Head Teacher, Zaba sows the seeds of future education through myriad avenues, whether it is helping with building administration, after-school programs, wellness initiatives or the school's annual art show. A favorite of parents who love to see their kids' hidden talents leap to the fore, Zaba created the school's Day of Play, where students and parents come together to create toys out of cardboard. He is also a driving force behind Toffolon's MakerSpace, where students explore electrical circuits, score cartoons, create public service announcement videos, crochet, take apart toasters, code and create multimedia presentations to share their work.

"Great teachers like Michael Zaba have a tremendous long-term impact on their students," said Foley. "By artfully submerging them in process and creation, Zaba empowers them to think creatively in their studies and beyond. We are proud to welcome this visionary teacher as a Milken Educator."

"Connecticut has the finest teachers in the country who dedicate themselves to improving the lives of their students so they can achieve success as adults," said Lamont. "Mr. Zaba exemplifies what we look for in a teacher and we are grateful to have him as a role model for our students."

"Michael Zaba approaches teaching as an opportunity to set up his students for success by fostering important skills that ensure they rise to their full potential and are well-rounded individuals when they move on to the next stage of their academic careers and lives," said Wentzell. "Using a cross-curricular method, Mr. Zaba makes learning fun and accessible while helping his students understand how to apply and translate these skills to what they can accomplish in school and beyond. Mr. Zaba's dedication to delivering on the promise of an excellent education for all of his students extends well outside his duties in the classroom and include spearheading major school initiatives, parent engagement and mentoring and contributing to his colleagues' professional development. Congratulations to Mr. Zaba, Louis Toffolon School and Plainville on this extraordinary honor."

"Mike Zaba is an outstanding member of the Plainville Community School district," said Dr. Maureen Brummett, Superintendent, Plainville Community Schools. "He has established himself as a collaborative teacher who supports all aspects of Toffolon's curriculum. Mr Zaba is also a strong and supportive leader in his role as Toffolon's head teacher. I can't think of a more deserving professional to receive this prestigious award."

"Mike Zaba is the perfect recipient for this award. He is the kind of teacher every parent wants for their child," said Lynn Logoyke, Principal, Louis Toffolon School, Plainville Community Schools. "He is the kind of teacher every child wants in class. And he is the kind of teacher every principal wants for his or her school. Mike is talented, dedicated, kind, creative, reflective and humble. We are lucky to have him as part of our faculty at Toffolon."

About Milken Educator Michael Zaba
For Michael Zaba, teaching art is about more than drawing and painting: It's a cross-curricular opportunity to help his students at Louis Toffolon School in Plainville, Connecticut, build important skills that help them succeed in every part of their education. When Toffolon targeted growth in mathematics as a schoolwide goal, Zaba introduced grids and arrays to reinforce multiplication skills as students worked on Picasso-style portraits. His lessons include science and math concepts like patterns and mixing colors. When Zaba discovered that only a third of Toffolon's kindergarteners were able to identify and sort shapes, he incorporated the content into their art periods; in the end, 93% of the students built proficiency. Zaba challenged students to create new fitness routines and capture them in their artwork for a unit he designed with a physical education colleague. The art teacher goes to great lengths to make learning fun and accessible, leading authentic colonial crafts projects during a fifth-grade unit on early America and making a science-themed video where he and a fellow teacher played the parts of "Force" and "Motion" in full costume.

Zaba holds high expectations for his students, and they work hard to meet them, knowing that he sets them up for success. He works closely with his colleagues to teach skills in the art room that translate to the rest of their day. Zaba has introduced checklists and rubrics to help students evaluate and critique their own work, identify potential improvements and share suggestions with their peers—assessment skills they now use in other classes. Parents praise Zaba for helping their children discover hidden talents and interest in the arts, particularly meaningful for students who struggle with academics, social skills or athletics. He shares his expertise freely with colleagues in Toffolon's professional learning community and as a mentor for student teachers.

As Toffolon's Head Teacher, Zaba helps with scheduling, purchasing and general building management. He is involved in every major school initiative, including the after-school program, Positive Behavior Intervention Support Committee, wellness initiatives, an annual student art show, field trips, fundraising events and assemblies. When a colleague needed a last-minute activity for adults and children, Zaba pulled together a painting lesson for 100 people and sent participants home with their new masterpieces. Zaba created the school's Day of Play and Cardboard Challenge, where students and parents create toys out of cardboard, including play kitchens, lemonade stands, targets, foosball tables and mini-cities. In Toffolon's Kindness Garden, inspired by a book, children paint inspirational words and sayings on rocks for all to enjoy. Zaba believes that the teacher’s role is to inspire the next generation—a philosophy he lives every day.

Zaba earned a bachelor's in art education from Central Connecticut State University in 2001 and a master's in art education in 2012 from Boston University.

More information about Zaba, plus links to photos and a video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at

Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. In addition to the $25,000 prize and public recognition, the honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2018-19 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in New Orleans from March 21-24, 2019. Educators will have the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about maximizing their leadership roles to advance educator effectiveness.

More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional learning opportunities throughout recipients' careers. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees.

The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators. Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Award is completely unique: Educators cannot apply for this recognition and do not even know they are under consideration. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then are reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation.

Past recipients have used their Awards to fund their children's education or their own continuing education. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded the adoption of children.

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Milken Educator Awards tour is on social media at,,, and

For more information, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards
The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation 31 years ago in 1987. The Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish.

Lynne Russo 
(818) 903-6079 cell;