How he becomes his subject

20th June 2008 at 01:00
The TESS will profile every winner at the Scottish Education Awards over the coming weeks. First, Henry Hepburn meets the man who, despite only six years in the profession, has become Teacher of the Year
The TESS will profile every winner at the Scottish Education Awards over the coming weeks. First, Henry Hepburn meets the man who, despite only six years in the profession, has become Teacher of the Year

It is not uncommon for David Miller to break into tears in front of his class. At emotionally taut moments of The Great Gatsby or Lord of the Flies, he has become so overcome that he has had to pass reading duties on to pupils.

Yet far from deriding him or shifting uncomfortably in their seats, it is this sort of unfettered response to great literature that has made Mr Miller hugely popular among pupils.

"I think he's so honest about his subject," says sixth-year pupil Hannah Terrance, who has been taught by Mr Miller at St Ninian's High - currently in Bishopbriggs but soon to move to Kirkintilloch - since third year.

"He's unique - he's not like any other teacher. Every pupil engages with his teaching style. No matter if it's the neddiest ned or the teacher's pet, everybody loves him and listens to him.

"Every classroom you walk into, you're guaranteed the eyes are on him: his classes are a performance by a performer."

Mr Miller, 45, has only been a teacher for six years after a previous career in various largely arts-based jobs, including assistant to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama's principal and fundraising for Glasgow's Mayfest festival.

He turned to teaching after reaching an age where he wanted to find some "meaning and narrative in life", but does not regret taking so long to enter the classroom. Indeed, he believes life experience provides confidence that makes it easier to handle a class.

"Children love confidence, and the 15 years I had before going into teaching gives me that confidence," he says. "They definitely respond if you are totally fearless in a classroom."

His teaching style is flamboyant but, crucially, not because he seeks the centre stage for his own gratification. He defines the purpose of teaching English as introducing pupils to "texts that reach to the heart of what it is to be human", and stresses that his approach is designed to elicit a reaction from pupils: "I'm very, very much interested in how the children respond."

A lack of ego explains why his likeability is not undermined when, after being asked why pupils talk so highly of him, he muses that he has a "kind of electrifying effect on the classroom". Such statements are matter-of-factly delivered and devoid of haughty arrogance, but his desire to be open means that neither is he one for false modesty.

Mr Miller believes he has had the most profound effect on male pupils. He admits that his openness with his feelings and his flamboyance - he was a star turn in drag in a school production of Calamity Jane - make him "different from your average west of Scotland male". But what counts most for the boys in his classes is that he is an "emotionally honest person", and it is they, even more than girls, who respond well to that.

Paul McLaughlin, the headteacher, in summing up Mr Miller's attributes, talks first of his "outstanding relationship with pupils".

He is also impressed by his "enthusiasm for everything he does, his generally positive attitude, and his sense of humour. The fact that he never takes himself too seriously - kids respond to that".

But Mr McLaughlin stresses that his colleague has a more wide-ranging ability to "bring people with him", including other teachers - from whom there is "no jealousy" - and parents.

Mr Miller has a huge roster of commitments outside regular classroom teaching: he started a series of whole-school seminars on active learning skills, travels regularly on school trips, was involved in a motivational programme to help school-leavers avoid unemployment, and directed three large-scale musicals.

But it is his commitment to his subject that leaves the biggest mark on pupils. Hannah's decision to study English at university is largely down to Mr Miller: "His classes really taught me how someone can not just like their subject, but be their subject."

Winners in other categories came from throughout Scotland, from small rural schools to big city secondaries

- Smarter Scotland - Active Citizenship

St Helen's Primary, Condorrat Primary and Baird Memorial Primary (North Lanarkshire)

- BT Greener Schools Award

Shawlands Academy (Glasgow) BT ICT Learning Award Peel Primary (West Lothian)

- CBI Schools For All Award

Johnstone High (Renfrewshire)

- Quality Meat Scotland Health and Wellbeing Award

St Margaret's Academy (West Lothian)

- Cambridge Education and Learning Unlimited International Schools Award

St Ninian's High (East Dunbartonshire)

- Learning and Teaching Scotland Ambition Award

Islay High (Argyll and Bute)

- Determined to Succeed: Most Enterprising Primary School

Milngavie Primary (East Dunbartonshire)

- Determined to Succeed: Most Enterprising Secondary School

Peebles High (Scottish Borders)

- Determined to Succeed: Most Enterprising Special School

Merkland School (East Dunbartonshire)

- Determined to Succeed: Best Enterprise

Whitelees Primary (North Lanarkshire)

- Scottish Daily Record Education Supporter of the Year

Tom Paterson, Inveraray Primary (Argyll and Bute)

- Scottish Daily Record Probationary Teacher of the Year

Kirsten Darling, Foulford Primary (Fife)

- Scottish Daily Record Teacher of the Year

David Miller, St Ninian's High (East Dunbartonshire)

- Scottish Daily Record Headteacher of the Year

Jeff Brown, Moffat Academy (Dumfries and Galloway)

- Scottish Daily Record Lifetime Achievement Award

Michael Taylor, Dyce Academy (Aberdeen).

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