Hillary Hoyt (center), a third-grade teacher at Leroy H. Smith School in Winterport, received a Milken Educator Award in a surprise ceremony Tuesday. Credit: Kathleen O'Brien / BDN

A third-grade teacher in Winterport received a $25,000 prize Tuesday morning during a surprise ceremony at her school.

Hillary Hoyt, who’s taught at the Leroy H. Smith School for nine years, received the award from the Milken Family Foundation. She’s one of 60 K-12 educators to receive the award this year.

The Milken Educator Award marks the latest honor for Hoyt, who was also named the Waldo County Teacher of the Year last August, and was a finalist for the state Teacher of the Year award last year. 

“I’m still in a little bit of shock, but I’m extremely honored and humbled,” Hoyt said. “I had some wonderful teachers growing up who showed me what it was like to have someone there for you every day. I’m Waldo County born and raised, and I had teachers who showed me I belonged and mattered, so I wanted to make my students feel the same way.” 

Recipients can use the $25,000 award however they wish, according to the foundation. Hoyt said she may use the award in her classroom, but she wasn’t certain of her plans on Tuesday.

Hoyt is known for her creative lessons that teach her students applicable skills, like how to buy a house or car, save for college and budget for daily expenses. 

She received the award while wearing a Tigger costume as part of a school-wide costume day to celebrate a reading challenge. Students and teachers came to school dressed as characters from their favorite books, but Hoyt joked costumes aren’t unusual in her daily lessons. 

“When a teacher is excited about learning, I think it helps the students get excited about learning,” she said. “If it’s me dressing up in a baseball costume to build pop fly launchers, I’m all for it if it gets them excited to engage with the learning.” 

Smith School Principal Dawn Moore said Hoyt is “not only a teacher, but also a student.”

“She believes in what she does and it shows in her classroom, and I think the reason her kids do so well in the classroom is because she becomes one of them,” Moore said.

Hoyt was one of two Maine educators to receive a $25,000 Milken Family Foundation award Tuesday. Jamie Karaffa, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Bruce M. Whittier Middle School in Poland, also received a Milken Educator Award in a surprise assembly. 

The California-based Milken Family Foundation began presenting the Milken Educator Award in 1987. Since then, the foundation has given 2,800 awards to K-12 educators, totaling $70 million. Of those, 74 have been from Maine, according to the foundation. 

The last Maine teacher to win the Milken Educator Award was Adam Parvanta, a Gorham High School math and social studies teacher, in 2019. 

Lowell Milken, creator of the honor and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, said it’s more important now than ever to honor educators after they had to overcome significant obstacles during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“These past two years have reinforced the pivotal role of our nation’s educators, who serve on the front lines of accelerating learning and addressing the well-being of our students,” Milken said. 

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...