Featured Teachers: Denise Miller

Photos by Traci Westcott/The Herald
Holy Trinity Catholic School teacher Denise Miller jokes with eighth-grader Leo Eckman while he works on class work during algebra at the school on Friday. "Math is magic," Miller repeatedly told the class. "I just love this place," Miller said. "It just feels like family. That's why I keep sticking around."

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

JASPER — When Denise (Wehr) Miller’s former students think of her, there’s a good chance Tim McGraw’s song “Humble and Kind” comes to mind.

The song is a frequent soundtrack to the activities in Miller’s math and computer science classroom at Holy Trinity Catholic School’s East Campus, and there’s a decorative plaque with the words “humble and kind” painted on it in a fancy font sitting on the windowsill.

For Miller, 58, teaching is about more than her students learning math and computer applications. It’s also about teaching them to be good people who exercise humility and kindness.

Miller knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was in high school at Southridge High School in the 1970s, so when she graduated in 1979, she pursued a business education degree from Indiana State University in Terre Haute.

At the same time, Jasper High School graduate Dean Miller — now Denise’s husband — was completing his degree at Purdue University. Denise and Dean met the summer before their senior year of high school and started dating. They’ve been together since and recently celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary.

Holy Trinity teacher Denise Miller teaches during eighth grade algebra at the school on Friday.

After college, the Millers moved back to Dubois County to be near their families. The couple have two adult children — Nick, who lives with his wife, Elizabeth, in Muncie, and Leah of West Lafayette.

When they moved back, Dean quickly got a job in his field at Kimball, but Denise couldn’t find a teaching job nearby. She settled for a desk job at a local company. Her desk, she remembers, looked out a window, and every day she watched the kids walk past her on their way to and from school.

“I just cried because I wanted to be that person,” Denise recalled. “I wanted to be the one that the kids meet. I wanted to be one of the ones that gets to see them.”

She didn’t have to wait long. The next school year, Sister Joseph Louise English hired her to teach typing at Washington Catholic High School in Washington. It was there that Denise discovered her calling for Catholic education.

As a child growing up the daughter of Joseph and Virginia Wehr, Denise and her siblings began their schooling in the Catholic education system, attending St. Mary’s Catholic School until it closed when Denise was in the fourth grade. Looking back now, Denise said, she’s grateful to her parents for enrolling her in Catholic education because it allowed her to grow her faith and become closer to God. Now, she’s proud to guide her students in the same way she was guided.

“I love that I can pray with the kids,” Denise said, noting that at Holy Trinity, the day starts and ends with prayer. “I love that I can talk about God and faith.”

After two years at Washington Catholic, during which time she became certified to teach math, Denise learned of an opening for a math teacher at Holy Family Catholic School in Jasper. She applied, was hired and taught at Holy Family for 29 years — right up until Holy Family merged with Precious Blood Catholic School and the preschool at St. Mary Catholic Church in Ireland to become Holy Trinity. For the last four years, she’s taught computer science to Holy Trinity’s third- through eighth-graders, as well as seventh grade math and eighth grade algebra.

Holy Trinity teacher Denise Miller works with eighth-grader Aiden Seifert during algebra class at the school on Friday.

At times, Denise can’t believe how long her career has been.

“I never in my wildest dreams would have thought that I’d have at least 35 years of teaching,” she said. “And I’m proud of that. There were some years that were harder than other years, but I’m proud. And I’m proud of my students.”

Some of those students, including Holy Trinity Central Campus Principal Jenna Seng, have now become Denise’s colleagues. Seng still remembers taking Denise’s classes, and joked that “she taught me everything I know.”

“She emphasizes the importance of being humble, kind and generous to others,” Seng said. “She can be seen leading by example, and her one-of-a-kind laugh can often be heard from her classroom.”

Denise said she does like to joke with her students, although she admitted she often gets just as many eye rolls as chuckles.

Denise’s leadership quality comes up repeatedly when people are asked to describe her. East Campus Principal Jon Temple said Denise focuses on being a good role model and is always looking for ways to help her students grow, academically and spiritually. That desire led her to found the Student Ambassador program for the school’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

Denise said she got the idea after a start-of-the-year gathering for Catholic educators in the Catholic Diocese of Evansville. One year, the gathering was held at Memorial High School, and students who were dressed in dress clothes greeted the educators as they filed into the Mass with the bishop. The students impressed Denise with their manners and composure.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, what a school,’” she recalled.

Later, she inquired about the students and found out about the school’s student ambassador program. She decided she had to create a similar program for Holy Trinity. Now, she’s looking for more ways to use that program to help the third-graders transition into East Campus.

Denise herself plays a role in helping the third-graders make the transition. As the computer science teacher, she teaches third- through eighth-graders in some capacity, and she always tells them the same thing on the first day of class, no matter if they’re third-graders meeting her for the first time or eighth-graders who know her well.

“I always say once they come into my classroom, they’re my kids,” she said “I just love each and every one of them, and I have a heart for them.”

The love for her students makes the eighth grade graduation at the end of the year bittersweet for Denise. She always cries during the ceremony, she said, because even though she’s happy for them and proud of them, she’s going to miss them. It’s a thought that brings tears to her eyes even on a sunny August afternoon when she’s talking to a reporter.

They may graduate from her classes, but they never graduate from being “her kids,” and she’s been teaching long enough now that she and Dean have a hard time going out without her pointing someone out and telling him, “That’s one of my kids.”

The relationships she forms with her students and their families are a large part of what makes teaching so special, Denise said, adding that she feels very blessed to be part of the Holy Trinity Saints family.

That feeling of blessing hit her last week in the campuswide Mass. She was going up to the altar to serve communion, singing the “Our Father,” when she noticed the sound of the students singing along with her. It gave her goosebumps.

“It was just like, ‘Lord, thank you. Thank you. I’m here,’” she recalled.

After 35 years in teaching — 2019-20 will be her 36th — Denise has started getting the retirement question. But she shrugs it off, confident that she still has many years of teaching left in her. Sure, she may be nearing retirement age, but she’s nowhere near ready to leave the classroom or the students.

If she did, she said, she’d miss them too much.

This story is part of Featured Teachers, a monthly series that highlights educators in our community. To suggest an educator to be featured, email Education Reporter Leann Burke at lburke@dcherald.com.




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