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Randolph teacher receives ‘Oscars of teaching’ award for her dedication to young English language learners

Speaking in the gym of Margaret L. Donovan Elementary School in Randolph, Taylor Thai received the surprise of a lifetime with an unrestricted $25,000 Milken Educator Award.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Randolph teacher Taylor Thai arrived at work Wednesday morning for what she thought was a typical day of school. Little did she know, at 10 a.m. she would be honored at a surprise ceremony and recognized with a Milken Educator Award and a $25,000 cash prize.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” said Thai, who teaches kindergarten and first-grade English language learners (ELLs) at Margaret L. Donovan Elementary School. Her commitment to helping students was on display even as she received one of the awards known as the “Oscars of teaching.”

“I was tying a student’s shoes and then they announced my name. I was like, am I blocking the camera or something?” Thai said.

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Donovan Elementary School did not initially have a curriculum for ELLs, so Thai worked with the English Learner Department to develop one for the district, according to a press release by the Milken Family Foundation. She also collaborates with general education teachers to make learning accessible to all students, the release said.

Regina Robinson (far right), Massachusetts deputy commissioner of elementary and secondary education, held a zero along with students holding other numbers to show the amount of award money Taylor Thai won.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Jane Foley, Milken Educator Awards senior vice president, who received the award herself in 1994, presented Thai with the honor.

“It was so evident at the notification today, she’s a role model, to her students, to her community, to her colleagues,” Foley said, describing an “eruption” among students. “She’s making a strong influence on everyone around her.”

Students attended a school assembly where Taylor Thai received a Milken award.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Milken Educator Awards recognize early- to mid-career educators across the country for making profound contributions to their schools and communities and provide recipients opportunities to continue that work.

More than 60 educators will receive a Milken Educator Award during the 2021-2022 school year, but Thai is the only Massachusetts recipient.

Thai, who served on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s teacher advisory cabinet, was previously recognized for her commitment to increasing diversity in state educator ranks when the department named her an InSPIRED fellow.

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She has built strong relationships with students and their families, the Milken press release said, specifically the families of Donovan Elementary School’s growing number of Vietnamese students. Thai works to ensure families play an active role in their children’s learning by guaranteeing that they receive translated materials, reaching out to them by phone or home visits, and helping them integrate into the school community, the release said.

During the pandemic, Thai took on the challenges of remote learning. She delivered materials to students’ homes, held daily Zoom classes, and organized a drive-by parade to keep families and teachers connected, the press release said.

“Teaching through a pandemic was difficult,” Thai said, but seeing the students was worth it. “They were wearing masks but you know they were smiling underneath.”

All of this year’s honorees will attend the Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles in June, where they will become part of the Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,800 educators dedicated to advancing educational policy and practice.

“As an Asian American woman, I want to represent those kids,” Thai said. “Teaching means the world to me, and I really hope the kids think about exactly what they want to do in life and do things that bring them joy, and that they don’t necessarily have to do things for other people but do things that matter to them.”


Rose Pecci can be reached at rose.pecci@globe.com.