- Associated Press - Saturday, January 25, 2020

DIXON, Ill. (AP) - Joan Miller returned Wednesday to her home away from home.

Busy preschoolers drew crayon pictures in the classroom at St. Mary School that has belonged to Miller for 23 years, but she has been away from for more than 3 months.

As each child spotted the familiar smile, squeals broke out. “Miss Miller!”

Miller, the December recipient of Sauk Valley Media and KSB Hospital’s Dixon Amazing Teachers Award, has been on leave. What she thought was pneumonia turned out to be nonsmokers lung cancer.

“I dream about you guys every day,” said Miller, who started medical leave Sept. 30.



Tracey Simpson and Jane Jungerman, St. Mary’s other preschool teachers, are caring for Miller’s students.

“She’s a foundation to our school,” Simpson said. “She has that solid faith foundation for these kids, so that they can stand on that for the rest of their years to come.

“It’s not easy raising children, so we can set that foundation for these preschoolers. She’s done a great job, and it’s been amazing seeing her all these years.”

So much growth happens during preschool years, Miller said. “There’s never a dull moment.”

This year, she reached the point where she taught the son of a student she taught at the start of her career. Chances are, they played with the same toys – some have been there all 23 years – and learning through play is a goal.

One student used flexiblocks to build a scorpion. Another used them to build rock’em, sock’em robots.

Watching creativity develop has kept Miller teaching for as long as she has.

“It amazes me from first year to the end how much they grasp.”

Her impact on St. Mary has been so special that her preschool attracts families who wouldn’t otherwise think of enrolling their children in a private school, Principal Jean Spohn said.

“She’s that first person that parents encounter when they bring their child to school and preschool,” she said. “She’s loving, caring, understanding, and has such a way with children. She can discipline them with love, and because of that, kids are attracted to her and just love being around her.”

Making “dinosaur” fossils from clay is another fun activity in Miller’s class. Simpson’s five children each had Miller as a preschool teacher, and she still has all five of their activity folders. She looks back on them every now and again to figure out how Miller could do it all so wonderfully.

“The softness and the gentleness has been a gift to these kids and to this school,” Simpson said.

Christinamercy Dambman of Dixon likes how Miller always has her children’s best interests at heart.

“Her love for teaching the children is apparent, in that she instills a yearning to learn,” Dambman said. “She makes each child feel like they are the most important person in the classroom. Her quiet, gentle demeanor encourages a positive learning environment.”

Three of Amber Allen’s four children went through Miller’s class.

“She was kind, supportive and made learning fun!” said Allen, of Sterling. “Ms. Miller taught our kids that Jesus lives, and to share that with their friends. Her activities and fun days will live on in my memory as a mom forever.”

Miller grew up in Washington and attended Academy of Our Lady High School in Peoria. She ran a day care from her home while studying in college, and came to Dixon 24 years ago when her then-husband started work at Anchor Coupling. She spent a year working in the school office before a preschool position opened up.

Now she couldn’t imagine her life any differently.

Her daughters, Rebecca and Sarah, are grown, and of her seven grandchildren, four attended St. Mary.

“I look at the kids in think, ‘That could be my child in this room,’ and how would I want someone to treat my child?” Miller said.

She may not be in the classroom every day now, but she’s there in spirit.

“All of the time you put in, and the prayers, it means so much to me to just be here and to be among these kids and families,” Miller said. “You just never know when they’re going to say something that just makes you chuckle.

“All that desire to be a teacher was well worth it.”

___

Source: Sauk Valley Media, https://bit.ly/2Nt0vCe

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