Pam’s People Profile: Steve Hartman takes CBS viewers on journeys across America with his “On the Road” series of stories. Here, Pam Clifton takes readers across the Parkland by sharing stories of local residents.
So much has changed in 30 years.
When Donna Miller stepped into her classroom in 1989, there were no computers or tablets. This was well before the World Wide Web became a classroom mainstay. Google hadn’t been created. There was no such thing as Common Core State Standards or No Child Left Behind. Videos were shown in the classroom only if they were on VHS cassette tapes.
Now, fast-forward three decades. Chalkboards have been replaced by whiteboards and SMART boards. Some classroom libraries are all-digital libraries. Notebooks and textbooks are being phased out by laptops and other electronic devices. For many schools, homework is submitted via email and Google Classroom instead of hand-written pages. School curriculums now include drug awareness and strong anti-bullying programs. Districts practice intruder drills, go on lockdowns and some even have metal detectors.
Miller has experienced many of these changes, and she’s had to be very flexible and adaptive.
“You must be ready for anything at any time and you must ‘go with it,’ she said. “Life is never dull at school.”
Miller’s husband, Jerry, said one of his wife’s talents is perseverance because she doesn’t stop until the job is done, and done very well.
“I came from a very strong family with a very strong faith,” Miller said, “and my family faced many obstacles.”
Her dad, Donald “Bud” was a Type 1 diabetic and lost his eyesight. As a result of this, he lost his job when Miller was 4 years old.
“But with God’s help and guidance, our family just kept going.”
Shortly before becoming a teacher, Miller was a secretary while she attended college at Southeast Missouri State University. She said this experience definitely helped her in her teaching career.
She always felt her true career calling was to become a teacher.
She filled in for a few months during a teacher’s extended leave in first grade before becoming a second-grade teacher in August 1989 at Washington-Franklin Elementary in the Farmington School District.
This is the district Miller graduated from and now has worked her entire career.
“I have always enjoyed working with kids, and God lead me in that direction,” she said. “I really can’t imagine doing anything else.”
And Miller has a true knack for what she does.
She learns the names of her new students quickly every August.
“God has blessed me with the ability to put student faces and names together quickly,” she said.
She also creates strong rapport with her students. This is the best part about being a teacher, she said. She treasures the relationships she’s made with all the students and staff over the years.
In fact, Miller’s favorite part of every day is guided reading time when she gets to work with a small group of five or six students at a table in her room. That’s when she learns so much about these kids not only about their reading but their personalities. She takes the time to listen to them. She also tries to make time to hear what they want to talk about. In fact, she has had administrators comment that the atmosphere in her classroom is one of mutual respect. That’s one thing for which she strives.
“I connect with my students by relating to things that are important to them,” she said.
But being a teacher is never an easy task. To the critics who say teachers “have it made with three months off in the summer,” she laughed. “We cram a year’s worth of work into part of a year.”
She also typically works summer school. By the time that’s over, she’s back in her classroom getting ready for the new school year.
Miller arrives by 7 a.m. each morning and also frequently works late daily after school, including Fridays. She regularly takes papers home to grade. She sometimes works at school on Saturdays to organize and prepare for the next week and then grades more when she gets home. She does lesson planning before church and then sometimes more grading after church. It’s a never-ending job. And even with the constant work, she wouldn’t trade her profession for anything else.
“The frequent hugs and notes help you remember why you do this difficult job.”
Caring about her students is another part of her job.
“You never stop thinking about and worrying about your students,” she said. “I usually refer to them as ‘my kids.’ You wake up in the middle of the night thinking about them and how to help them. It never stops.”
And at the end of every school year, she goes through a period of sadness.
“I really miss my students when they are gone.”
One particular student she fondly recalled was MaKennah Barron, who she was privileged to have in class. Barron was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 2014. Despite many rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Barron passed away in 2016.
“She changed me forever,” said Miller. “She was such an inspiration and was so strong! As a teacher, you get used to having kids come and go as they move in and out. The impact of having a student die is something that never goes away. I will never forget her and the influence that she had on my life.”
There have been plenty of happy times and laughs, too. This year a little boy asked Miller to please tie his shoes. So she knelt down to tie them and he lifted his foot up. He said, “Here, I’ll bring my foot up higher so it isn’t so hard for you.”
She looked at him and grinned and said, “Oh, that’s OK. I’m not quite THAT old yet.” He said, “Oh, I KNOW you aren’t old. You aren’t old because you still have all of your blonde hairs.”
There are many things that have changed over the years. One of the big changes is discipline.
“I laugh and say that when I first started teaching, I could whisper to get my students’ attention in the hallway, etc. That definitely doesn’t work anymore.”
Another change is intruder drills, which Miller said she could have never imagined doing those when she first started teaching.
There are changes that Miller has experienced that tend to baffle her.
“I guess I would have to sum this answer up by saying ‘social trends,’” she said. “Teachers go to college to learn to teach. These days there are so many obstacles that prevent us from doing what we love. Discipline, meetings, curriculum writing and data collecting are just a few of the obstacles.”
Beyond the changes and challenges, Miller said her Washington-Franklin staff has been her family. There are many staff members, past and present, who have helped her in her job and her life. From fellow teachers and principals to custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries, and aides, the list is extensive. She also credits Donna Phillips, her main go-to person at school. Phillips began her educational career as an aid in Miller’s class. Afterward, Phillips taught third grade for a short time and then became a second-grade teacher. Since then, they’ve been colleagues and best friends.
For the last several years, Miller and Phillips have done “teaming.” Phillips teaches math and science while Miller takes on ELA and social studies. They share the same students.
In order to do teaming, the pair must have a strong relationship. In fact, they get along so well that some people confuse them with each other. Once, an administrator gave them each other’s paychecks. Another time, a principal went in to do an observation on Phillips but thought he was evaluating Miller.
“I guess this sums up how alike we are,” said Miller. “Donna always has my back, and I go to her numerous times a day.”
And they’re both retiring in May.
Although Miller said she is still exploring her options for after retirement, she has already been offered a contract with VIPKids, a program where she would teach English to Chinese students online one child at a time. She’s also hoping for grandchildren, too, because family is extremely important to her.
Miller enjoys reading, music and travel. She also hopes to become more involved in her church, Open Heart Assembly, the church that was founded by her grandfather, Rev. J.W. Allen. In addition, she finds volunteer work very interesting and fulfilling.
When Miller thinks back on her career, she can’t think about teaching without recalling her own second-grade teacher Jane Barton. She loved being in Barton’s class. Miller also fondly remembers her mentoring teacher, Pat Thomas, when she first started teaching. She was Miller’s “rock” those first few years.
Miller also credits her devoted parents for inspiring her to become a teacher. Even though her dad lost his eyesight when she was young, he always had such a positive attitude. When people asked him if he ever asked, “Why me?” he always responded, “Why not me?”
“He was such a blessing to so many people,” said Miller.
Her mom, Carolyn, was the most giving, sweetest person she has ever met. She sacrificed every day and worked hard to take care of her dad, brother Greg, and her.
“My brother once said, ‘She lived her whole life for other people.’ That is so very true.”
Miller’s parents are both deceased. Although she misses them terribly, she said she is so grateful for their loving influence on her life.
She also receives support from husband Jerry, retired, and brother Greg, CEO of First State Bancshares, Inc. She has three children. Daughter Kayla is married and works as a respiratory therapist at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City. Daughter Kyleigh graduates in May from Central Methodist University with a business degree and currently works at Bank Midwest in Independence. Son Patrick is manager at Farmington’s Steak ’n Shake. She has two stepchildren, Ryan, who works in the prosecuting attorney’s office, and Kelly, who is employed at Frankie Gianino’s.
When Miller reflects on her 30 years in education, she doesn’t focus on awards or accolades. Her biggest reward – by far – has been when students come back and tell her that she contributed to their love of reading or learning. Another huge honor has been when parents tell her that they requested that their children be in her class.
As for passing on any advice to soon-to-be teachers, she says to simply “do your best.”
“If you do your best, you won’t have regrets about ‘what would have happened if I just would have put forth a little more effort.’ Also, kindness to others goes a long way. I try to be a good role model, and I hope I have been.”
When she retires this spring, Miller estimates that she will have had about 1,300 students in school.
That’s an overwhelming number and an overwhelming amount of love for all those kids.
Miller’s favorite book is Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” The story is the perfect summation of her selfless devotion for 30 years:
Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy. Every day the boy came to the tree to eat her apples, swing from her branches, and slide down from her trunk. And that made the tree very happy. As the boy grew older, he wanted more from the tree. And the tree gave and gave.
“… and she loved a boy very, very much – even more than she loved herself.”
-President Ronald Reagan gave his farewell address. Days later, George H.W. Bush was sworn into office on Jan. 20 as the 41st President.
-Toyota launched its luxurious Lexus.
-Nintendo released its hand-held Game Boy.
-The Berlin Wall came down.
-The First GPS satellite was put into orbit.
-Archaeologists unearthed a 4,400-year-old mummy in Egypt.
-The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize.
-Hurricane Hugo caused $7 billion in damage in the U.S.
-Wayne Gretzky became the leading scorer in the history of the National Hockey League.
-Disney released The Little Mermaid, the last film to use traditional hand-painted cell method of animation.
-Barbie’s Dancetime Shop sold for $24.98.
-Batman, starring Michael Keaton and directed by Tim Burton, became the first film to earn $100 million in its first 10 days of release.
-The average annual income was $27,450.
-The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 at Super Bowl XXIII.
-Postage stamps were 25 cents.
-The Oakland Athletics swept the World Series by defeating the San Francisco Giants.
-Music charts were topped by Madonna, Paula Abdul, Richard Marx, Milli Vanilli, Janet Jackson, Debbie Gibson, The Bangles and Gloria Estefan.
-Posion’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” were popular songs.
-“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” hit the big screen, along with popular sequels like “Lethal Weapon,” “Ghostbusters,” “Back to the Future,” “Indiana Jones,” and “Karate Kid.”
-Popular TV shows on the small screen were “Seinfeld,” “Saved by the Bell,” “Baywatch,” “MTV Unplugged,” and “The Simpsons.”
-The world lost celebrities Lucille Ball, Betty Davis, “Aunt Bee” Frances Bavier from The Andy Griffith Show, and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
-These people were born in 1989: singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, actress Hayden Panettiere, singer Jordin Sparks, actor Daniel Radcliffe of the Harry Potter films, and actor Jake Lloyd, the young Anakin Skywalker in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”