January 29, 2010

2010 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

After 50 years in classroom, teacher still inspires students

At 71, Roncalli High School teacher Marilyn Dever-Miles has spent 50 years leaving her mark on the education and the lives of her English students. (Submitted photo)

At 71, Roncalli High School teacher Marilyn Dever-Miles has spent 50 years leaving her mark on the education and the lives of her English students. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

When Marilyn Dever-Miles retires as a teacher someday, she will head to her hallway closet where she has stored boxes filled with notes and cards from her students of the past 50 years.

Notes thanking her for preparing them for college.

Letters of appreciation for how the demands she made of them now help them in their jobs.

Birthday cards telling her how much of a difference she has made to their lives.

“Someday when I retire, I’ll get the boxes out, I’ll go through them and I’ll cry,” says Dever-Miles, who teaches English at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. “The students used to send me notes. Now, they send me e-mails. Those mean so much. One of them doesn’t just make your day, it makes your month.”

At 71, Dever-Miles has been “making the days” of students for five decades—making those days more challenging and inspiring.

“At 50 years, to still be viewed by your peers and your students as the most energetic and passion-filled teacher, I just find that startling,” says Chuck Weisenbach, Roncalli’s principal. “After 50 years, she’s still at the top of her game. Kids swear by her, even more so when they get to college. My wife and I have two kids who have had her as a teacher. They just adore her, and they have such respect for how much they have benefited from her. She can just flat out teach.”

Spend time with Dever-Miles and her passion for teaching teenagers fills her words and her facial expressions.

“The kids keep me going,” she says with a smile that glows. “They are so full of energy, and they are so full of hope. Maybe it’s also the challenge of staying ahead of them. Sometimes they win, and sometimes I win.”

As she shares that last thought, her eyes get bright, and even flash a touch of mischief. Her look becomes a mixture of warmth and intensity when she talks about her approach to teaching.

“Hold a tight rein and you’re OK. Let up and you’re dead,” she says. “One of my goals is to be a good example. I want them to see a good example of a good Catholic woman—someone who keeps her promises, someone who is fair, firm and friendly. And someone who is fun. Never discount fun—I think we do sometimes. It’s good for them to see me go to church, too. Kids hate a phony, and they look for it in adults. You better not be a phony if you want their respect.”

While she seeks respect, she also demands punctuality and organization from her students.

“I want to teach them things they’ll need later in life,” says Dever-Miles, a member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis. “Organization and punctuality are the two biggies for me. I don’t allow tardies, and I don’t take late assignments.”

She teaches English—and stresses writing, grammar and vocabulary—because she believes it’s the foundation of so much of what people do in their careers. She teaches at a Catholic school because she sees the difference that an emphasis on faith can have on students.

“I went to a Catholic grade school, a Catholic high school and a Catholic college,” says the 1960 graduate of now Marian University in Indianapolis. “We get the basics of our religion, and we can practice it every day. The kids can go to Mass every day. We can pray in every class. And we really push service. Your religion is more accessible here.”

So is she.

Consider this note from a former Roncalli student: “I really see Jesus in you. Your great faith and trust in God is obvious through your Mass attendance and your kind words. I have truly been blessed to know you as my teacher and role model.”

There’s also this note from a former Roncalli student who is studying in college to become a teacher: “You are still the best teacher I have ever had. After high school, I have had six semesters of college professors and you still knock them all out of the park. … I learned how to always write my best, and always take the time to correct my mistakes. I am very conscious of bringing materials to class, and being on time. You truly made a difference, Mrs. Miles.”

While notes from her students through five decades have filled boxes in her hallway closet, she has showered her students with written praise, too.

“She writes congratulatory notes and good-job notes to students who are in the play, to athletes who have made the

all-county team, to kids who have done well on the Spelling Bowl team,” Weisenbach says. “She calls parents with good news about their children. She’s unbelievable.”

More than anything, she believes. She believes in her students. She believes in her ability to make a difference in their lives.

“My kids are my legacy,” she says, tapping her fingers with emphasis on a table. “It’s any thing and every thing I’ve done to help a kid—whether it was to help them through some drama in their life, or help them with their faith, or help them do well in college. That’s my legacy. These are my kids. Don’t you ever think otherwise. Whether they want to be or not, they are my kids.” †

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