I dropped out of college at the end of my second year. After a very undistinguished high school career my parents made me go to a junior college out of our district. “Made me” because pre-1975 you had to be twenty-one to be an adult. My parents knew if I went to the local junior college I’d flunk out like my friends eventually did. I didn’t know anyone at the college, so I actually spent each day studying. I managed to get a C average. I was thrilled, my first C average since fifth grade. I was off to a good start.
The good start didn’t last long. A friend of mine convinced me to go to the University of Arizona. I was ready to get away from home, so I thought with the good start I had my first year I was ready for the big time. I was not prepared for a university experience. I was behind before classes even started. A counselor looked at my SAT scores and told me, “If you don’t take time out to chew a stick of gum you might make it through.” Over my head, out of my league, I hung on, but discovered I wasn’t ready for University. That year ended with me almost flunking out. I wasn’t much of a success as a student and going back to Junior College was out of the question. I packed my bag and hit the road.
I spent a year traveling in Europe. Everything was new and I discovered I could fend for myself. I met and was accepted by people of all ages and nationalities. My comfort zone expanded beyond my home town. That was the year I grew up. I discovered I was intelligent but uneducated, and that was unacceptable. I loved becoming curious. I enjoyed learning and experiencing new people and places. I returned to college and became a true student. I had a great deal of catching up to do. I loved college from then on.
After I graduated I had no idea what I was going to do. I wasn’t interested in working, having no idea what I would be good at, so I decided to do the one thing I was good at. I began traveling with no intention of stopping. I had saved enough money from digging ditches during the summer I graduated. I was perfectly happy. No commitments, no time schedule and no worries. Travel was cheap in those days. Living in youth hostels and not splurging enabled me to stretch my money for two years.
But when I arrived in Australia my money was almost gone. Running out of money in Australia forced me to take desperate measures. Two years of traveling and I finally had to get a job. There were two ads in the Sydney Herald I thought I could apply for. One was working in a donut shop and the other was an ad for an untrained graduate teacher.
Donut shop workers get up about the time I was usually going to bed in those days, so teaching was the job I reluctantly applied for. I was hired to teach at a boy’s high school. There was no training, other than two comments of the Head Master’s. One, “If you like the job and we like you, we’ll keep you on.” As he walked me to my classroom he told me “Wind stirs boys up.” That was the extent of my training. The Head Master opened the door to my classroom, ushered me in and said, “Boys, this is your teacher, Mr. Miller. Mr. Miller, these are your students.” With that he closed the door, leaving me alone with my class. I was terrified.
The second day was my initiation into adulthood. When I walked in the classroom all the boys stood up and said, “Good morning Mr. Miller.” I was shocked. I actually looked around thinking my father was behind me. He was the only Mr. Miller I knew. Then I realized I was Mr. Miller and I liked the idea of being a Mr. I looked at my students in a different light. They believed I was a teacher and that gave me the courage to try to live up to their expectations. I had to act the part and it helped me hide my terror.
Considering that I had hated school from the sixth grade until college, I’m still amazed that I loved teaching from the first day. I still can’t explain what made me enjoy being a teacher. It just felt right, even though I had no idea what I was doing. Australian schools were very strict and most teachers were distant and aloof. Students were caned across the hand for breaking rules. Most of the teachers intimidated me in the beginning. They reminded me of the teacher who caused my downfall in the sixth grade.
I couldn’t behave the way the other teachers acted and no one minded because I was taking care of the bottom of the barrel students. The one concession I had to make was to have a boy caned. My students didn’t understand why I’d keep them in at recess or lunch for misbehaving. One finally got up the nerve to ask me what was wrong with me and why didn’t do what all the other teachers did instead of taking their free time. That was when I remembered, “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” I had a boy caned the next day and all the kids settled down and accepted me as normal. That was the only time I had to have anyone caned.
I loved teaching from day one, but I remained terrified. With no training I doubted everything I did. While my students did well, I didn’t trust myself. I believed I couldn’t do the job right without graduate training. I thought my incompetence would be found out at any minute. The third day of class the Head Master came into my room and without saying a word walked to the blackboard and changed the spelling of “humor” to “humour.” That didn’t help my confidence. The next day one of my students told me he couldn’t understand a word I said. I didn’t speak Australian. The students got comfortable with my funny accent and I think it made them relax. They would correct my American spelling and pronunciation, which made them feel equal or superior to me.
In spite of my lack of confidence, my students responded positively to my instruction. Australian school curriculum was standardized and relied on memorization and state and national testing. My students were not successful test takers. They were used to being criticized and stressed. Knowing what that type of treatment had done to me, I could not treat them that way. I was unsure of what I was doing, so I had to use humor when I made mistakes and humor worked. My students relaxed and began to retain information. Their confidence grew.
My students were underachievers. They were in the lowest class. The administration wasn’t going to have an untrained teacher in charge of the higher classes. The high achievers were in 1st Form Class A. My students were in 1st Form Class F. My students were used to being treated as losers. I didn’t know any better, so I treated them as winners. A funny thing happened. They outperformed Class C on their State Exams.
My underachievers reminded me of myself at their age. There was nothing wrong with their ability. They had gotten off track and couldn’t keep up. Outside experiences like moving, divorce, death in the family or, a very common stumbling block, a bad teacher is all it takes to derail a student. Through the fifth grade I was a perfect student. My teachers loved me and I loved them. In the sixth grade I had a teacher who didn’t love me.
She had left the army to become a teacher. She believed in heavy discipline. As she told my mother, “don’t worry I’ll break him to my way of doing things.” I rebelled. Love me and I’ll do what you want. Force me and I’ll fight. I spent the sixth grade fighting my teacher. Unfortunately I had her again for the seventh grade.
At the end of the fifth grade I decoded words at the eleventh grade level. Half way through the seventh grade I was placed in Special Education. Fighting my teacher took all of my energy. I wouldn’t cooperate with her on any level. I refused to read for her. I hated school and gave up trying. I spent most of the sixth grade in the office for being disobedient. I wouldn’t read or do much else I was supposed to do. Half way through the seventh grade I could no longer read. That was how I wound up in Special Education.
That began my slide towards academic failure. The only things I was successful at were the behaviors you don’t want your student to be successful at. While I hated that teacher, she is responsible for making me an effective teacher. I’ve never forgotten how powerful a teacher is and how easy it is to derail a student. As a professor of mine said, “Don’t be a teacher, be a lover. If you want students to learn, make them love you.” To make them love you, you have to make them grow.
Even though my Australian students did better than expected, I still believed I lacked training. For the first time I knew what I wanted to do. When I worked with my students I was not worried about being untrained. I enjoyed being with them and figuring out how to get their attention. It became a game of manipulation. I loved the challenge. When I wasn’t with my students I reverted to doubting my ability. I couldn’t stand feeling I was inadequate. I loved being with my students. I had to get rid of the feeling of inadequacy. At the end of the term I decided to quit and get the training I thought I needed.
If I was going to continue teaching, without being terrified, I had to find out the secrets of good teaching. I returned to California and entered Graduate School. I was determined to become a trained teacher. The only two things I got from teacher training were credentials that said I was a trained teacher and the realization that teacher training cannot make you a teacher. You’re either a teacher or you’re not. I lucked out and I’ve enjoyed every minute of the last forty-six years working with underachieving students.
I have a BA in History, an MA in Secondary Education and three teaching credentials: Standard Secondary, Standard Elementary and Special Education. I was the Rotary Teacher of the Year in 1997, and Gold Rush Charter School Teacher of the year in 2014. Currently, I am Dean of Students at Gold Rush Charter School in Sonora, California.
I’m involved in many activities besides teaching. I’ve made prize winning wine; I’m an old west reenactor. I won “Best Law Dog” at the Old West Living History Foundation National Championships in 2002. I wrote, produced, directed and sold our festival award winning movie, Living by the Gun to Lionsgate last year. I’m the creator and owner of Millerosa’s Star for a Day, www.millerosa.com, the video equivalent of an old time photo. As a member of the Angels Camp Boosters I was a frog jump judge for twenty years at the annual Calaveras County Fair and Frog Jumping Jubilee. I live in Vallecito, California with my wife. Our youngest daughter is in business with my wife. Our oldest daughter is married and just had her first child.