Speech and language pathologist earns Teacher of the Year honors despite pandemic challenges

Anna Miller, a teacher at Harmony Elementary School in the School District Milton, has been recognized as a 2021-2022 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year
Published: Jun. 1, 2021 at 6:40 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 1, 2021 at 6:15 PM CDT
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JANESVILLE, Wis. (WMTV) - If you walk past Anna Miller’s classroom at Harmony Elementary School in Janesville, you’re likely to hear the sound of games and laughter. But in each of these activities, Miller has incorporated important lessons for her students.

As a speech and language pathologist in the School District of Milton, Miller helps her students, ages three through third grade, with their communication skills, from articulation and language, to voice quality and creating communication systems.

“My job is to ask kids to do hard things all the time, so I need to come up with ways to make it fun,” Miller said. “To make them feel like maybe they don’t realize how hard they’re working.”

Miller uses tokens that start with an "R" as well as a chart of sentence tenses in a lesson...
Miller uses tokens that start with an "R" as well as a chart of sentence tenses in a lesson with a student.(NBC15)

Miller has not been a speech and language pathologist her whole career. She started out as a classroom teacher in a parochial school in an Apache reservation in Arizona. Her time there opened her eyes to a different calling.

“I loved being a classroom teacher, but the system at that time was that if you had a child who needed a lot of extra help, then they essentially had to go to a different school because we didn’t have that in place. It was so heartbreaking to me to see the kids who needed the most help go somewhere else.”

Miller returned to Wisconsin and went back to school looking for something related to special education, and entered into the field.

In a career that can rely so heavily on being able to see a child’s mouth move to help them, a pandemic with mask wearing and social distancing proved to be a new challenge. Miller adapted, getting more creative with her lessons, and utilizing online tools.

“She is just a go getter,” said Sarah Stuckey, Principal at Harmony Elementary School. “She comes up with new things every single year, and in the year when a pandemic really could have really kind of paralyzed her as a speech and language teacher, you would have never ever suspected that it was a challenge at all. She just found lots of new and interesting ways to work with students.”

It’s those qualities that landed Miller with statewide recognition as a 2021-2022 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, awarded by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The moment Anna Miller, a speech and language pathologist at Harmony Elementary School, learned...
The moment Anna Miller, a speech and language pathologist at Harmony Elementary School, learned that she is a Wisconsin Teacher of the Year.(NBC15)

Stuckey said one of Miller’s strengths is her focus on relationships, not only with her students, but with their families and her team members.

“It’s such an honor and it’s so meaningful to have the original nomination come from a family, because they’re the ones who see the impact of what we’re doing here,” Miller said.

“The children, they don’t even think of their struggles as struggles, they just love coming to see Mrs. Miller because it’s just part of their day,” Stuckey said. “Some of our children will ask their classroom teachers, ‘when is it my turn to go see Mrs. Miller?’ And they don’t have speech and language needs, but they know how much fun the children have when they work with Mrs. Miller, and I think that’s one of the things that really is outstanding. She’s just an important part of the whole school.”

While students have fun in her classroom, this year hasn’t come without its obstacles for Miller. Like many teachers, she had to take on new changes and challenges during the pandemic. But Miller never gave up.

“Having to make some quick changes and learn lots of new things, that was definitely a time that my husband will attest I needed to step away from the computer, have myself a little cry, and then come back and figure out, ‘ok how are we going to do it this time?’ and just tackle it.”

Despite those moments, Miller pushed through, dedicated to her students and their success.

“There’s nothing like seeing one of these kiddos do something for the very first time that they had no idea they could do,” Miller said. “Whether that’s a great ‘R’ sound or putting together a small sentence to ask mom or dad for something, there’s nothing like seeing the face light up.”

With the recognition came a grant for the school, which Stuckey and Miller said they plan to use to continue Miller’s work in communication by creating communication boards for playgrounds as visual supports for students.

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