Dr. Susan Miller
One might not connect the study of home economics with math and science, nor at-risk students with academic achievement. But Dr. Susan Miller (Minicus ’75), teacher and academic support director at Middleborough High School in Massachusetts, is all about forging connections and helping students with special needs achieve beyond anyone’s expectations.
Miller entered Immaculata as a home economics major at a time when many college campuses were in turmoil. “We began looking at different schools that offered home ec, but when we got to Immaculata, it just felt like home,” said Miller. “You always want a good fit and I found that at Immaculata. When you have that in place, you gain confidence and the courage to try things. You discover that even if you make a mistake, you can learn from it and move on.”
Earning her B.S. in home economics entailed some “heavy science,” subjects Miller never imagined would play such a central role in her career as an educator. “It was challenging. We took inorganic chemistry and biochemistry and, ironically, I never thought I would use the math or science, but I have.”
Miller admits that she was never a “math geek,” but was more interested in education. “I was that kid who loved to play teacher. To this day, I love the sound of lockers, the announcements over the intercom, the smell of chalk. It was fun when I was a kid, and it’s still fun.”
That sense of delight in learning and creating an environment where learning is valued has guided and informed Miller’s work from the start. Her very first job was working on a federal project that provided math, English and social studies education to servicemen and airmen at Fort Lewis and McCord Air Force Base in Washington State. “I married a man who went to West Point,” said Miller, “so that’s how we ended up moving to Washington State. Working with young men without diplomas who were returning from Vietnam, helping to draw connections between the academic subjects and their military experience, is how I began.”
Miller went on to get her vocational and social studies certification at the University of Washington. While working for the Clover Park School District, Miller worked on several projects. While teaching at Lakes High School, Miller developed and administered a consumer education project while working for the attorney general’s office in Olympia, WA. It was there, as a teacher of social studies, home and family life for Lakes High School in Tacoma, WA that Miller was selected to participate in a federal grant-funded pilot program called Positive Parenting. “At that time, Pierce County had the highest reported incidents of child abuse in the nation. In response to that, a group of people proposed this program to teach parenting skills, and it was vocational in the sense that students would leave the program with a vocational certificate in child care.”
The child development program combined discussion groups, classroom instruction, and the establishment of a cooperative preschool within the high school. “There are many preschool programs associated with high schools today,” said Miller, “but in 1978, we were one of the first. There was the high school connection, the community connection, local hospitals were involved, the Junior League arranged for guest speakers—it was a broad approach and it was ground-breaking in raising awareness of what it means to parent and to work with children.”
By the early eighties, Miller realized that jobs in home economics were becoming scarce, so she returned to school for her history certification. Her husband’s career took them to Massachusetts, where Miller worked as an academic home tutor for Old Rochester Regional High School, then on to teaching history at Middleborough High School.
She went on to earn an M.S. Ed. in special education from Simmons College in Boston, and an Ed.D. in educational leadership from Johnson & Wales University, Providence, RI. Her pioneering work includes developing an experiential social studies program for language delayed students; developing pilot alternative assessment portfolios for the Mass-achusetts Department of Education to serve students with severe disabilities; serving as a severe special needs instructor for the Mayflower Elementary School, and as a member of the educational inclusion pilot team.
“When I went back to school for my master’s, inclusion was just coming into the forefront of education,” said Miller. “I’ve always looked at trends and what’s going on in the news and, when I moved back to Massachusetts, I became involved in special education. Mitt Romney was our governor then and he was determined that Massachusetts was going to lead the way in educational reform.”
Part of that reform was inclusion in the classroom, an important concept for Miller and, along with it, the method of co-teaching. “A regular teacher and a special education teacher, both certified professionals, are paired in the classroom, teaching the same content area, sharing responsibilities. The goal is that, with appropriate accommodations and modifications, the special ed students will be successful.”
Miller admits to being skeptical of the idea when she was first introduced to it. “I thought perhaps we were asking too much of the special needs population, putting too much pressure on them.” However, she is thrilled to add, “I was absolutely wrong! It has been amazingly successful. I work with all levels of ability and disability, from students with dyslexia to those with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, and I have witnessed first-hand how much more capable they are than we give them credit for. We don’t appreciate how much these students are comprehending.”
Miller recently conducted a workshop on using technology to help students understand difficult concepts. “It was all about using 21st-century skills to teach about 18th-century founding fathers.” Students were shown how to create a “Fakebook” account on George Washington, and the results were hilarious, inspiring and revealing. “The students had messages on there such as, ‘Who’s no longer your best friend? Benedict Arnold,’ and ‘Martha wants you to call home.’
These are students people have given up on, but they get it!” said Miller.
Miller also teaches another population with some special needs of its own—professionals who are transitioning into education. As an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts, Miller teaches courses that train those who wish to teach math or science in an urban setting. “One area that has been problematic is mathematics because we don’t have enough math teachers. Most young people majoring in math are going into engineering. We need more math teachers who understand strategies for the classroom, who have been equipped to deal with difficult behaviors. We can’t just throw these new teachers into the classroom and close the door. We’re in the business of people, so we should be supporting people.” Miller began looking closely at what these transitioning professionals needed to teach well and how to train them to be effective in the classroom. “I work with them on maintaining an inclusive classroom, what they can do to maintain order, what works and what doesn’t, how to talk to students, when to call home.”
Miller tirelessly seeks new ways to reach students with a variety of challenges, and one of the methods she has found most successful is utilizing what is familiar to students to help them grasp unfamiliar concepts. “For many special ed students, you can’t just talk about math, they have to see it, you have to get that visualization going.”
Miller suggests that teachers walk around the school and surrounding neighborhood taking pictures, then enlarging the images and using them to illustrate math lessons. “The buildings, the lines, the ways of the city can all be used to teach math. Take these sights, which are familiar to the kids, and create math problems around them. The familiarity makes the difference. It really works.”
Making a difference is what Miller is all about, so it’s no surprise that in 2010 NBC’s Nightly News segment, People Who Make a Difference, highlighted the work Miller and her team are doing to help transitioning teachers work with urban students to be successful in math and science. “That was so thrilling,” said Miller. “They focused in on our students and how, thank God, they are getting something out of it.”
In addition to her responsibilities throughout the school year, Miller teaches a unit during the summer called Bridging the Gap to Geometry. By enlisting the help of the Corps of Engineers, at-risk students take a trip down the Cape Cod Canal and a tour of its three bridges to help them see bridges they cross all the time in a new way. “They learn to see all the lines and shapes, and how that relates to the problems they encounter in geometry. And the engineers have been unbelievable in working with me and these kids.”
Miller believes that engaging the community in working with at-risk students is “the secret sauce.” The culture has accepted that “math is too hard” for some young learners but, as Miller pointed out, “In the 21st century, we can’t accept that defeat as an answer. The jobs that were there for these young people’s parents are not there for them. We’re going to be dealing with them now as they struggle, or we will deal with them later when they’re not finding jobs.”
To the students who are not shy about saying they don’t like school and they don’t like math and they’re never going to college, Miller has this to say, “We’re not closing any doors, and we don’t say can’t. No one knows whether you’ll go to college or not. Right now we’re working toward a better you, a better community, a better tomorrow.”
There is another, equally profound message Miller shares with her students, one that seems especially apt coming from a former home economics major. “After the Olympics this past summer, I couldn’t get the song Home out of my head, so I started off the school year telling my students, ‘For the time you are in my classroom, you are home.’
“There was such a strong sense of community at Immaculata,” she said. “You always felt that you were loved. I want my students to have that, too.”