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A ‘Star’ Kindergarten Teacher

A 5-year-old girl stood in front of Tess Miller’s kindergarten class, hands on hips and face scrunched into an angry glare. But she was not throwing a tantrum–she was acting out a story scene.

Kindergartners love to ham it up, and Miller channels that energy to boost their reading and comprehension skills.

“Students whose first language is Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Bosnian, or Spanish might not understand the story in English, but they can grasp its meaning through dramatization,” says Miller, a teacher at Lincoln Park Elementary in Portland.

Last September, the U.S. Department of Education honored her as a 2008 American Star of Teaching for her success in helping children learn to read. Every year, the department recognizes one teacher from each state and the District of Columbia.

“It’s wonderful to be acknowledged by my peers,” says Miller, “but I really do it for the children. I work for them.”

Teaching is Miller’s second career. Previously she was a social worker in the Philippines, and later in Arizona after she married an American and moved to the States. She found working with developmentally disabled children and geriatric long-term-care patients rewarding–but also sad.

During that time, Miller also taught Sunday school to joyful, inquisitive 3- and 4-year-olds.

At 40, she realized it was time for a career change and began taking teacher education classes part time while working full time–eventually earning her master’s degree in teaching at Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling.

“My brain is hardwired in Tagalog, my first language,” says Miller, who still takes time each day to improve her mastery of English. “Lewis & Clark taught me the real essence of reading. I learned to visualize and make connections with my life experiences.”

Many of Miller’s students–English speaking and English language learners–are poor and didn’t attend preschool or learn to read at home. She sets the bar high to ensure their success.

“My classroom is very structured,” she says. “This year I have 19 boys and 8 girls, and the boys are much rowdier. Last year I had 33 students. Structure and high expectations are my survival skills.”

A stickler for organization, Miller employs a color-coding system, hand signals, and pictures to bring order and clarity to her classroom. Two fingers raised in a V-sign, like bunny ears, mean students should listen. A picture of a girl with one finger in front of her mouth indicates quiet time.

Despite the challenges of reining in and molding an exuberant bunch of kindergartners, Miller wouldn’t trade her job for any other.

“In March, we all wore our pajamas to school to celebrate Dr. Seuss’s birthday. I put rubber bands in my short hair, making it stick out all over,” she says. “Where else could I find a job that’s this much fun?”

–by Pattie Pace

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