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Rick Miller

Profiles in Education

Candace Braun

Name: Rick Miller
School: John Witherspoon Middle School
Years Taught: 11 years
Subject/Grade Taught: Civics, 8th grade
Education: Princeton Regional Schools; bachelor's and master's degrees in history from Rutgers University
Most Memorable Book: John Adams, by David McCullough
Person You Admire: "[John Witherspoon Principal] Bill Johnson has really been a mentor for me. He's an eternal optimist; I love the fact that he can come in here and enjoy every minute of the day working with students. That's something that always encourages me."

After roaming the halls of John Witherspoon Middle School as a student, Rick Miller decided to take on a role in the school that would keep him roaming the halls for many more years to come: he became a teacher.

While deciding this, however, he made another important decision, to turn the classroom into an exciting adventure that students would look forward to being a part of each day.

"I had a few teachers in high school who really showed me you could have high academics and do a lot of independent thinking but still have a lot of fun in school...It's really formed who I am and how I teach," said Mr. Miller.

Teachers who brought excitement to the classroom and were able to show students how important the individual learning process is helped Mr. Miller to see what was most important for him to remember in his own teaching: "You didn't feel like you were going to come in, sit there, get lectured to, and leave. You knew they cared."

In his eleventh year teaching eighth grade civics, Mr. Miller says that the course changes regularly, making it a new subject each time he teaches it.

"I find this is one of the most relevant classes for students and they seem to really enjoy it," he said. "It's the first time they can debate and argue and it's okay."

The main topic of debate in this year's class is the presidential election. While every year students learn about the roles of our country's leaders, this year they have been following the presidential debates and discussing them in the classroom.

Approach to Teaching

Mr. Miller begins the school year by giving each student differing accounts of the American Revolution, some written by an American soldier, others by a British soldier. In the resulting discussion students learn that a bias in reporting the news is not only true today, but was an issue hundreds of years ago.

"Kids start to see history in a different light. They realize it's not just facts that somebody feeds you."

One classroom activity involves having students take an opinion poll, after which they are divided up into Democrats and Republicans and are asked to create a federal budget that meets the needs of their political parties. This helps them understand what their political leaders do.

Mr. Miller also teaches his students everything from their legal rights as minors to how the judicial system operates by holding a mock trial in the school's auditorium.

"They start to see how they each have different views, and they start to learn how to discuss their views with each other," said the teacher.

He knows he's truly getting through to his class when parents come tell him about the discussions their children are having with them at the dinner table.

"I'm always very pleased when parents tell me they're talking about these issues with their kids," he said, adding that he wants to make the classroom a place "where students can feel able to express their opinions in a safe, respected atmosphere."

At the end of the year all 200 students in the eighth grade class take a trip to Washington D.C. to see the government that they've been learning so much about.

"Those three days are always a memorable experience," said Mr. Miller. "It's especially meaningful for me when I take the students down there and I see it through their eyes."

Community Involvement

In addition to teaching young students about the real world, Mr. Miller teaches young adults about the real teaching world. Working as a content instruction specialist at Princeton University, he serves as a mentor to college juniors and seniors looking to become social studies teachers.

Offering them guidance on lesson plans and helping them find placements in the Princeton schools, Mr. Miller would seem to spend every waking moment thinking about education. But somehow he manages to find time to serve as a firefighter with the Princeton Fire Department, volunteering for seven years and working as an officer for four of them.

He is also working towards his Ph.D. in diplomatic history at Rutgers University, which he expects to complete next month.

In teaching teenagers,Mr. Miller finds advantages that aren't always found in younger or older students: "They're at a nice age because they're really engaged but they have fun, aren't cynical about things yet, and really want to express their opinion."

Putting your all into your job can also make it more stressful, but remembering what it was like to be young can help as well, said Mr. Miller: "Sometimes I feel like I'm always going to be a 13-year-old in some way."

To recommend an educator for the Profiles in Education series, contact Candace Braun.

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