Eenergy and enthusiasm is evident as principal Dr. Steven Miller walked around the halls of Clinton High School earlier this week greeting students and teachers in their classrooms.
Every once in a while, he stopped and picked up tiny pieces of paper and threw them in the trash.
Miller takes pride in the school and wants to see it improve. The educator’s efforts resulted in him being named Principal of the Year for Clinton City Schools recently.
“It hit me by surprise,” the CHS principal said during an interview this week. “We have so many deserving principals and administrators. I’m truly honored and blessed.”
For Miller, it’s a reflection on the school as a whole, which includes teachers, students, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, office staff and others associated with the district.
“We did so much last year, and I have to attribute the successes we had to the team,” he stressed. “It’s really one of those things where it’s a reflection on a strong team.”
Many outsiders may be critical of public education, but Miller believes they don’t look at it as a people business.
“They try to apply a business model to it and it’s not that,” he acknowledged. “People are the most complex thing that we have. In order to keep everybody working collaboratively, the vision, mission and what we’re ultimately doing for kids is really crucial and missed by people who have not spent any time in a school or in a classroom teaching.”
As a principal, Miller is hardly in his office. It’s a part of his farming background, he said.
“You never ask anyone to do things that you don’t do yourself,” Miller said. “I think that has helped with that ‘can do spirit.’”
Miller grew up on a farm 36 miles outside of Philadelphia, in the town of Woxall, Pa. His father, David Miller, was a teacher and his mother, Ruth Miller, operated a home daycare. She passed away from cancer.
“I knew I was going to college, but we couldn’t afford it,” Miller said.
To help pay for it, Miller joined the U.S. Army and served as a combat engineer. After two years of active duty, Miller earned his bachelor’s in industrial technology education from Millersville University.
Next, he earned a master’s in school administration from the University of North Carolina – Wilmington. He later earned a doctorate in educational leadership from North Carolina State University.
The road to CHS began many years ago when he watched his father work as a career technical education teacher.
“My dad was a very good educator,” Miller said about his father’s work with wood, metal and drafting. “I used to go to work with him when my school was out. I just loved it and I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”
But his father was not pleased with the educational leadership at the time.
“My father would always talk about how bad the administrators were and how they didn’t focus on working with teachers,” Miller said. “He talked about the lackadaisical attitude and how frustrating it was for him.”
It made an impression on the young Miller.
“Our teachers do so much so they deserve to be well supported, and our students deserve to be well supported,” he stressed.
It’s always something he keeps in the back of his head. Miller said he liked to bridge gaps and increase overall student success.
“Our biggest mission here is to bridge gaps in student achievement and to increase overall student achievement,” he said. “If we can do that, then we’re going to move forward.”
In the early 1990s, Miller began his educational career by teaching trade, industrial drafting and technology education for Columbus County Schools in Whiteville. That was followed by his work as a trade and industrial teacher for Whiteville City Schools.
He also served New Hanover County Schools as an interim principal at Laney High School, and with Williston Middle School as a technology education teacher.
Miller later took a hiatus from the classroom as trade and industrial education consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and worked as a career and technical student organization manager for ExplorNet, a liaison position to DPI.
“I was so blessed to be able to go to schools all over North Carolina and support students and teachers,” he said about his work with DPI. “It was really wonderful.”
But he missed the day-to-day interaction with students, which led him back to the classroom and working with Wake County Public Schools. He was an assistant principal at Athens Drive High School and an intervention/testing coordinator for Middle Creek High School. Both schools are part of the Wake system.
In 2013, he came to CHS.
“It just seemed like a sign from God that it was time to move on,” Miller said. “I have just loved coming to this wonderful community.”
While working with DPI and ExplorNet, he became familiar with Clinton. Everything eventually came full circle.
“This is an area that I have loved since the early 90s.” he said. “It’s an example of a city school system that works well and has the opportunity to get better. It’s also an example of a community that’s very progressive.”
Miller said moving to Clinton has been awesome for his family.
“They’ve been patient and it’s been a whirlwind for us,” he said about teaching in different cities.
He met his wife, Carol, at Millersville University. Together they had three daughters, Phoebe, a sophomore at UNC Asheville; Sophia, a junior at CHS and Naomi, a freshman at CHS.
He’s also a member of Phi Delta Kappa Fraternity, International – an association of teaching professionals and Epsilon Pi Tau, a technology education honors fraternity.
Miller enjoys practicing Aikido, a Japanese form of martial arts which is used by actor Steven Seagal. Although it’s a self-defense practice, he said it’s associated with harmony.
“Part of what I do with people is avoiding confrontation,” he said. “I’m certainly a rock and I know what we need to do, but anytime I can merge and blend and work with that person, that’s synergy.”
Another hobby is nurturing bonsai trees, a practice seen on “The Karate Kid.” It’s something he relates to making things better.
“The bonsai has the potential to live long beyond my generation and my children’s generation,” he said. “So the idea of any of the work that we do is actually making better for generations to come. It removes us from the picture.”
Along with martial arts, Miller has also embraced the concept of “Leading with Soul,” after reviewing the book from Lee G. Bolman and Terrance Deal. The authors said excellent leaders provide their co-workers with four gifts to have a more successful team.
Miller said the four gifts include significance, love or caring, authorship and power.
“I’ve really taken that to heart because it’s been so rewarding to be a part of that,” he said. “I try to do everything I can to help provide that support for students and for teachers.”
At Clinton High, he wants to create a mentality where students are tenacious, gritty and like to dig into work. To emphasize his point, Miller scrunched his face and slightly growled while forming his hands into something claw like.
“I don’t mind being corn and I don’t take myself seriously,” he said. “I take the work that I do seriously.”
But overall he wants his students to know that there are doors of opportunity out there.
“It’s our job to open those doors for them,” he said.
One of his ultimate goals is to be one of the best schools in the Southeast and North Carolina. He believes the school is on its way based on academics.
“My job at the helm now is to make sure we put those strategic pieces in place to start climbing up,” he said. “I believe we have everything in place – the people, the resources, the knowledge base and the kids to compete …”