April 6, 2024

U.S. Town Names an Adventist ‘Teacher of the Year’

Award was given by the city of Park Forest, Illinois, to Alexandria Miller.

Nicole Brown-Domínguez for Lake Union Herald
Alexandria Miller was named Teacher of the Year by the city of Park Forest, Illinois, United States, at its annual “academy awards” on January 27. [Photo: Dave Sherwin]

In Alexandria Miller’s first month as principal, a pipe burst in her Park Forest, Illinois, school, leaving the floor covered in several inches of water. Overnight, the 20 students relocated from the South Suburban SDA Christian School to Emmanuel Seventh-day Adventist Church and resumed their lessons in Sabbath School classrooms, connecting to Wi-Fi in the sanctuary. This transition was extraordinary as Miller was then juggling a myriad roles at the school, including principal, teacher, and bus driver.  

Navigating the Herculean task of handling such a disruption while wearing so many hats required immense dedication and skill. These traits led the city of Park Forest, southwest of Chicago, to naming Seventh-day Adventist church member Alexandria Miller as Teacher of the Year at its annual “academy awards” on January 27. Residents and parents had nominated Miller for her commitment to excellence.    

It’s a recognition she’s quick to share with others. Miller credits the rich community involvement around her. Whether it’s a Parent Teacher Association meeting or the school’s “Taste Around the World” celebration where families bring foods from different cultures, neighbors and community members pour into school events, providing support and unwavering investment, including representatives of the fire station and local businesses. Even the mayor took time to connect with the students.   

The 32-year-old knows what it’s like for children to be nurtured in a Christian environment. She was once a student at South Suburban and credits her third- through eighth-grade years at the school for sparking an interest in teaching and the pursuit of an education degree at Oakwood University, an Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama.  

The Park Forest school’s founding principal, Renee Humphries, made a lasting impression on her. “Not many people see and hear our youth,” Miller said. “It was my ‘a-ha’ moment of having an educator that made you feel like family, and Adventist education is like a little family showing you care and love.”  

Humphries said she is immensely proud of her former student’s accomplishments. “She’s a phenomenal educator,” said Humphries, a former Lake Region education superintendent who serves today as associate superintendent of schools in the Alleghany East Conference of the Adventist Church. “She’s diligent and creative, and most of all she loves her students, and it’s evident she believes every child is special and wants them to be the best they can be.”   

Deirdre Garnett, Lake Region Conference’s superintendent of schools, agreed that Miller loves her students. “You know she is a good teacher when you see how they love her,” she said. “They have a little family there, and you can feel it when you walk into the classroom.” 

Home and School leader Naomi Fields witnessed Miller’s skills up close. Fields’ eighth-grade daughter, Elizabeth, has attended South Suburban for the past three years. “She is a very good communicator,” remarked Fields, who also pointed out Miller’s ability to pursue opportunities for the students. The school is close to the downtown area, and during the Christmas holidays, businesses decorated Christmas trees. The principal seized this opportunity to raise the school’s visibility by having the students decorate a tree with the school’s name featured prominently. Another idea she pursued was to help the students write a book, which is now in production. Fields said, “She got the information and helped the kids do their portion.” Copies will go on sale as a fundraiser.

Raising the Bar 

It wasn’t a surprise that when the pipe burst in September 2018, Emmanuel church members threw themselves into supporting the students and faculty, applying their dollar-a-day funds to the students. The experience perfectly summarizes what makes South Suburban an attractive school: community support and the initiative of an exceptional teacher and principal.  

The legacy of care and love continues with Miller, both as teacher and mother to her four-year-old son, Harper. She does Thursday check-ins to ensure emotional regulation and starts every day by telling her students to declare that this day will be a great one and reminds them that their words have power. 

Miller is now setting her sights on making the larger community aware of the school and Adventist education. South Suburban prides itself on its efforts in the arts and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In a district-wide Black history writing competition, where participants were tasked with picking a piece of art and writing a 100-word essay about someone who inspires them, all the winners were Adventist students.  

The school’s strength, however, is its focus on science and mathematics. Boasting Northwest Evaluation Association scores within the 80th percentile, the South Suburban school demonstrates it can compete with top-ranked institutions. Miller credits the success to teachers such as Luzmila Badillo Gualdron, whose training in mathematics has fostered excitement in the subject.

Now in her ninth year in the classroom — and fifth at South Suburban — Miller makes it clear she enjoys her calling in Adventist Christian education. She hopes her children will see in her what she saw in Humphries, a teacher who created welcoming environments for learning and faith and encouraged students to give their best every day. 

“There is something special about Adventist education where everyone can stop and pray over a student and see them baptized,” Miller explained. “It’s been a blessing to be with the kids. We’re educating our students for today, the future, and eternity.” 

The original version of this story was posted by the Lake Union Herald.