Retired PE teacher will miss those ‘punch moments’


Deb Miller taught the skills and rules of sports and activities for more than three decades at St. John XXIII Catholic School in Port Washington, but she describes her career in a different way. “I’ve been teaching kids to smile for 33 years,” she says.

These smiles tended to be wider with certain subjects. His students loved volleyball and Miller loved teaching it. She also coached volleyball for 25 years, including Port High’s varsity team for six years.

Gymnastics was a favorite among her toddlers until the eighth grade.

Boys, she said, could use their strength and girls their flexibility while learning gymnastic techniques. They prefer the jumping horse, either by landing on it or by riding on it.

Miller, who retired this month, said one element of gymnastics he misses perhaps the least about his job: the mats that cover the gym floor.

“I say the gym equipment gets heavier every year,” the 60-year-old said.

Miller chartered his career path during his early childhood in Verona. She is the first in her family to go to university, partly thanks to the insistence of her parents. Her father worked on a dairy farm and her mother was a secretary.

“I had to choose what I was going to do and where I was going to go,” she said. But his parents made it clear: “You go.

Both decisions came easily for Miller because she was athletic and loved sports. “I appreciated the teams and the team atmosphere. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to be a physical education teacher or coach? ” she says.

She played basketball and volleyball and competed in the high jump and running events in high school track and field.

In high school, she was inspired by her physical education teacher, Kim Bertignoli.

“Teachers always have role models who are teachers,” she said. “I thought, ‘I could do that’.”

Miller had gone to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, known for its strong physical education curriculum.

She spent a year teaching in Kansas, where her late husband worked in the hospitality industry, before returning to Badger State.

She visited Port Washington and decided it was a nice little town where she could raise a family. Saint John XXIII was the only full-time job offer she had, so she accepted it. It was in 1989. She never left.

“I’m one of those rare people who specialized in a field and worked there for 34 years,” she said.

It helped that Miller was raised Catholic and that her job and her two daughters’ schedules matched well.

As a volleyball coach, she coached girls between the ages of 10 and 18. Eighth graders were among her favorites because “I could mold them into the players they could become,” she said.

“I was fortunate that many went on to play on high school varsity teams.”

At one point, nine of Miller’s 10 varsity volleyball players at Port High were former St. John XXIII students.

“It looked awful,” she said of feeling like she favored her former students. But “but they were just so good.”

It was then that she experienced one of her most emotional moments as a coach. She taught her team the Athlete’s Prayer, which reads:

Lord help me today as I compete,

To always be a righteous athlete,

Help me to do my best,

To honor my team at each contest,

And help me remember the purpose,

Is to grow in mind, heart and soul.

The only player who was not a student of Saint John XXIII agreed to say so too, and the team recited the prayer before each game. During a tournament, Miller said he saw his players gather alone for prayer.

“They all memorized it and said it together,” she said, touching her heart and choking.

Five of last year’s Pirate college players are St. John XXIII alumni: Kayla Johnson, Julia Schmitt, Sydney Hoeft, Caroline Lippe and outside forward Jennacy Wille, who was selected to the North Shore’s second team Conference.

Lippe’s brothers, star football players Jake and Patrick, also had Miller as their gym teacher for eight years.

Patrick said it was “super special” and all three loved Miller as a teacher. His favorite activities were kickball and basketball.

“In kickball, we were always hitting the ceiling or trying to throw it on the balcony that overlooks the gym because it would be a home run,” Patrick said.

Miller still gets his volleyball fix serving as a scorer.

“It’s nice to have a front row seat,” she said. “I’ve been bonked on the head a couple of times. You cannot look down when the ball is coming towards you.

Volleyball success was fun, but her daily wins in her class — the biggest in school — sustained her.

“The thrill in a child’s eyes when they pull or do a cartwheel is so exciting,” she said.

“It’s a punch moment. You taught them that.

She loved it when students rushed to class and asked what they were doing that day. It happened so often that she wrote it on the board so she wouldn’t have to repeat herself.

Miller jokes that she was known as a “security Nazi” and said she handled classroom management well.

“Children find comfort in stability. They know what to expect,” she said, adding that all teachers at St. John XXIII collaborated for consistency.

“We work as a team,” Miller said.

Among the biggest changes Miller has seen in his career is technology.

“When I was cleaning out my filing cabinets, I found notebooks where you write your notes in a book,” she said.

The new technology, Miller said, is 90% better, and she’s grateful she took typing in high school to adapt to it faster.

It’s the 10% of the time the technology fails that is the problem, such as when the school’s Wi-Fi connection goes down.

“Before, the school lived and died on its printer and copier,” Miller said.

Kids today, she says, are more athletic in certain skills because they practice. Club and travel teams have become much more popular.

Of Miller’s own children, one is a teacher and the other works for the state.

She met her successor, Nathan Russell, at the school’s field day.

“He seems like a nice young man,” she said. “I hope he finds a home here like me.”

Upon retirement, Miller remarried and would continue to golf at Hawthorne Hills, camp at Monticello, and tend to his flower garden.

His interest in education never left him.

She volunteers at the school library once a week with Emily Keller.

And she already teaches outside of school – she has two grandchildren, ages 7 and 4.

“Grandma makes them work on their dribbling and jumping,” she says.


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