Freehold Teacher Wins $25,000 Milken Award, Honored as One of America’s Top Teachers

Taylor Matyas, a former Freehold Township School District student, returns to teach in her community

April 1, 2022

FREEHOLD, NJ (MONMOUTH)–In a surprise assembly earlier today, Taylor Matyas, an instructional coach at Laura Donovan Elementary School, received a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for her excellence as a student-and-teacher mentor who models collaboration, data-driven teaching, and creatively using technology to make education more engaging for her students.

Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and New Jersey Acting Commissioner of Education Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan surprised Matyas with the honor before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and the media. Matyas is the first-ever recipient in Freehold and among more than 60 educators nationwide to receive the recognition during the 2021-2022 school year. She is one of only two recipients in New Jersey this year.

Hailed as the “Oscars of Teaching,” the Milken Educator Awards celebrate, elevate and activate the American teaching profession and inspire young, capable people to join it.

“Each year, the Milken Educator Awards team searches the country for think-outside-the-box educators like Taylor,” said Dr. Foley, who herself is a 1994 Milken Educator from Indiana. “Her creativity in the classroom, collaboration with students and parents, and dedication to using data to bring best practices to life for her students are what make her our latest Milken Educator Award recipient. We are proud to celebrate her today!”

The Milken Educator Award is not a lifetime achievement honor. Recipients are heralded while early to mid-career for what they have achieved — and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities inherent in the Award.

“We commend Mrs. Matyas on this well-deserved recognition,” said Dr. Allen-McMillan, New Jersey Acting Commissioner of Education. “She immerses herself into the curricula, then identifies numerous access points for students to make meaning of the content prior to personalizing their learning so they have the confidence to succeed. Ms. Matyas is representative of all engaging and passionate educators who strive daily to improve student outcomes.”

Oprah, a longtime education advocate, shared her congratulations to this year’s winners in a video message shared earlier this year thanking “the most incredible educators around the country” and acknowledging her deep appreciation for the “tireless work” they do.

More about Taylor Matyas:

Models Mentoring: Matyas prioritizes connection and relationship-building in Freehold Township School District, with both the fourth graders she taught until this year and the teachers she now works with. Matyas mentors and supports Donovan’s teachers through modeling, coaching and professional development. Focused on improving and accelerating student achievement through quality curriculum and instruction, she observes in classrooms, collaborates with staff on collecting and analyzing data, researches best practices and contributes to curriculum.

Prioritizes Professional Development: A former student in the Freehold Township School district herself, Matyas hosted pre-certification teachers in her class and opened her doors to staff from Freehold Township and other districts. On the district curriculum team, Matyas has designed integrated ELA units and project-based learning cross-curricular units that push students to think critically, collect and analyze information, ask questions, and tackle real-world issues. When she taught at nearby Joseph J. Catena School, she served on the STEAM committee, planning design challenges and demonstrating robots, 3D printers and green screen technology. Matyas also serves on the district data team and technology vetting committee. As the district transitioned to standards-based reporting, Matyas designed standards-tracking protocols and parent communication tools, which are now used across Freehold Township. At district EdCamp days, Matyas facilitated professional development on blended learning, Freckle Math, personalized learning plans and student learning portfolios. In cooperation with High Point University, she delivered a webinar to North Carolina teachers on blended learning, using print and video examples from her classroom practices.

Uses Technology to Enhance Education: At Catena, remote learning during the pandemic brought challenges, but Matyas used technology to make both academic and social-emotional learning seamless and fun. She arranged virtual lunch tables, reading circles and writing discussion groups using Zoom breakout rooms. Family members, pets and beloved stuffed animals joined the class’s online morning meetings and weekly dance parties. Students “visited” a turtle hospital while studying animals and biomes during one of Matyas’ virtual field trips. Every Friday, Matyas asked students to submit Flipgrid videos reflecting on successes for the past week and setting goals for the days ahead. Matyas’ students trusted her and were eager to be their best selves in her class; it’s no surprise that they demonstrated consistent growth and top district and state assessment results in ELA and math.

Encourages Student-Led Learning: Matyas blends whole-group, small-group and individualized instruction across each day. In her classroom at Catena, students led their own learning using data from lessons and formative assessments, as well as digital content providers like Freckle, Achieve3000 and NoRedInk. Effective best practices, including mini-lessons, direct instruction, reading and writing workshops, guide reading and math, and cooperative groups helped ensure engagement. Matyas used various modes of instruction and learning experiences to meet students’ needs through targeted intervention and enrichment, including digital content providers, adaptive learning programs and project-based learning. During “Genius Hour,” students researched and pursued subjects that resonated and inspired them: ship design, fashion, video production, history. Pupils used this time to create prosthetic limbs, teach themselves to play musical instruments, and design skateboards.

Commitment Extends Beyond School: At Catena, Matyas led extracurricular programs before and after school, including study skills, Lego and computer clubs, and the school news broadcast, helping students plan scripts, take photos, and record and edit weekly programs. In her popular Elementary Entrepreneurs program, third, fourth and fifth graders designed products to sell at a holiday event, raising more than $2,300 for a local pediatric cancer organization, in memory of a Catena student who had passed away a few months earlier.

Education: Matyas earned a bachelor’s in elementary and special education in 2013 from the University of Delaware.

More information about Matyas, plus links to photos and video from today’s assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at: https://www.milkeneducatorawards.org/educators/view/taylor-matyas

More about the Milken Educator Awards: “The future belongs to the educated.”

Along with the financial prize, Milken Educator Award recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,800 top teachers, principals and specialists. The network serves as a rich resource for fellow educators, legislators, school boards and others dedicated to excellence in education.

·       The honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum, where they will network with their new colleagues as well as veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to increase their impact on K-12 education. In addition, they will learn about how to become involved in the Milken Friends Forever (MFFs) mentoring program, in which freshman Milken Educators receive personalized coaching and support from a Milken Educator veteran on ways to elevate their instructional practice and take an active role in educational leadership, policy and practice.

·       Over the years, more than $140 million in funding, including $70 million for the individual cash awards, has been devoted to the overall Milken Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients’ careers. 

·       Veteran Milken Educators frequently go on to serve in leadership roles at state, national and international levels. 

·       “We find you. You don’t find us!” Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards initiative has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels in each state. The most exceptional candidates are recommended for the award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation. 

·       The $25,000 cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways. For instance, some have spent the funds on their children’s or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even adopting children. 

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events or to watch the award events unfold, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook (@MilkenEducatorAwards), Twitter (@Milken), YouTube (/MilkenAward), Instagram (MilkenFamilyFdn), and TikTok (@MilkenAward).

For more information, visit MilkenEducatorAwards.org