Retiring phy ed teacher will miss those ‘fist-bump moments’

‘A child’s thrill when they do a cartwheel is so exciting’
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

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 said.

Those grins tended to be wider with some subjects. Her students loved volleyball and Miller loved teaching it. She also coached volleyball for 25 years, including the Port High varsity team for six years.

Gymnastics was a special favorite among her toddlers through eighth-graders.

Boys, she said, could use their strength and girls their flexibility while learning gymnastics skills. They like the vaulting horse the best, either landing on top of it or sailing over it.

Miller, who retired this month, said one element of gymnastics she may miss the least about her job: the mats that cover the gym floor.

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

Miller chartered her career course early growing up in Verona. She is the first in her family to go to college, in part due to the urging of her parents. Her father worked on a dairy farm and her mother was a secretary.

“I got to pick what I was going to do and where I was going to go,” she said. But her parents made it clear in no uncertain terms: “You’re going.”

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

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

As a senior in high school, she was inspired by her phy ed teacher, Kim Bertignoli. 

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

Miller was off to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, known for its strong phy ed teaching program.

She spent one year teaching in Kansas, where her late husband worked in the hotel industry, before moving back to the Badger State.

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

“I’m one of those few people who majored in a field and then actually worked in it for 34 years,” she said.

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

As a volleyball coach, she mentored girls ages 10 to 18. Eighth-graders were some of her favorites because “I could mold them into the players they could become,” she said.

“I was blessed 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 horrible,” she said of the impression she favored her former students. But “but they were just that good.”

That’s when she had one of her most heartwarming 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 fair athlete,

Help me to do my very best,

To honor my team in each contest,

And help me to remember the goal,

Is to grow in spirit, heart and soul.

The only player who was not a St. John XXIII student agreed to say it too, and the team recited the prayer before each match. At a tournament, Miller said she saw her players gather on their own for the prayer.

“They all memorized it and said it together,” she said as she touched her heart and got choked up.

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

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

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

“In kickball, we would always hit the ceiling or try to kick it up in the balcony that overlooks the gym because that would be a home run,” Patrick said.

Miller still gets her volleyball fix by serving as scorekeeper.

“It’s nice to get a ringside seat,” she said. “I’ve been bonked on the head a couple of times. You can’t look down when the ball is coming at you.”

Success in volleyball was fun, but her daily wins in her classroom — the biggest in the school — kept her going.

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

“It’s a fist-bump moment. You taught them that.”

She loved it when students would race into class and ask what they were doing that day. It happened so often she wrote it on the board so she didn’t have to keep repeating herself.

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

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

“We work as a team,” Miller said.

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

“When I was cleaning out my file cabinets, I found grade books where you wrote your grades in a book,” she said.

New technology, Miller said, is 90% better, and she is thankful she took typing in high school to adjust to it faster.

It’s the 10% of the time technology fails that is a problem, such as when the school’s wifi connection goes out.

“It used to be that the school would live  and die on its printer and copy machine,” Miller said.

Children today, she said, are more athletic in certain skills because they train. 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 I have.”

In retirement, Miller is getting remarried and will continue to golf at Hawthorne Hills, camp in Monticello and tend to her flower garden.

Her interest in instruction hasn’t left.

She is volunteering in the school library once a week with Emily Keller.

And she is already doing some teaching outside of school—she has two grandchildren, ages 7 and 4.

“Grandma’s got them working on their dribbling and skipping,” she said.

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