ʻIlima Intermediate STEM educator inspires in and out of the classroom

The Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association Award for Teaching Excellence program was established to celebrate the outstanding work of the late Stacy Nishina, an outstanding public school teacher, longtime staff member of HSTA, and the supporter of all HSTA’s state candidates for the NEA Foundation Awards for Teaching Excellence.

Our 2021 recipient, ʻIlima Intermediate teacher Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin, clearly demonstrates each of the following five criteria of the S.T.A.C.Y. Award.

Scholarship: Milianta-Laffin has shown her dedication to the profession as a lifelong learner. She has participated in and presented at a variety of courses and conferences to not only grow as a professional, but to share her knowledge and expertise with others.

Teaching: Milianta-Laffin is a STEM educator. In 2020, she was one of five teachers named Hawaiʻi state finalists for the secondary-level Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST). She focuses on instruction in and out of the classroom, for her middle school students and peers, content based instruction and real life lessons. Milianta-Laffin takes her lessons to the next level and finds creative ways to keep everyone engaged.

Advocacy: Milianta-Laffin’s work has been recognized within HSTA—she was the recipient of our 2020 Pono Award for social justice—as well as at the national level. NEA featured her in its Member Mondays post in October 2020 for her keynote at the National GSA Summit. She is an active member of the HSTA Government Relations Committee and found ways to support HSTA’s recommended candidates during the 2020 election despite COVID-19 restrictions. Her advocacy work goes beyond what she does in HSTA. During the pandemic, she worked with other teachers and Hawaiʻi Kids Can to build Wifi on Wheels pilots where vans park at community centers so students can access the internet.

“Years ago, someone once asked what ‘radicalized’ me as a teacher,” Milianta-Laffin said. “First, I was irritated, because I didn’t consider myself a radical. But looking back, if wanting our students housed, fed, cared for, and given the best free and public education possible is a radical idea, then yeah, I’m a radical.”

Community: Milianta-Laffin serves as the advisor for ʻIlima Intermediate’s gender-sexuality alliance, the Rainbow Royales, as well as a policy director for GLSEN Hawaiʻi. She works with the Rainbow Royales on a variety of issues that impact their community. The group has gotten involved in the menstrual equality movement by not only creating a “menstruation station” at the school, but getting legislation around the topic introduced and testifying to its importance. Milianta-Laffin is passionate about making space for LGBTQ+ youth in our classrooms, schools, and communities.

Youth: In addition to her work with the Rainbow Royales, Milianta-Laffin also sponsors the ʻIlima Activist Club. They participated in the International Youth Climate Strike with Greta Thunberg in 2019 by protesting at the Capitol and appearing on ʻŌlelo’s “News and Views” to share their knowledge of coding to advocate for additional computer science funding and offerings at the Board of Education in 2018.

“Bell hooks (pseudonym of author, professor, and social activist Gloria Watkins) tells us that ‘There can be no love without justice.’ Justice for some is not justice at all, and I’m proud to be working in a state and national union that understands that,” Milianta-Laffin said. “Let’s continue to be radical for our students together.”

As the recipient of this year’s award, Milianta-Laffin will be HSTA’s nominee for the 2022 NEA Foundation Awards for Teaching Excellence.