She’s for the birds

Hannah Miller is an assistant professor of Education at NVU-Johnson.

What’s your biggest passion?

School. I talk about school all the time. I have been in a school every year of my life since age three. So I have been a student, then a teacher, then student, then a professor. Now I’m a professor and I talk about school all the time. So I feel like my biggest passion is school, school, school and kids, kids, kids.

What obsesses you?

I have an obsessive personality. So if I’m interested in something, I tend to be very interested in it. I think it absolutely takes over my life, like if I’m watching a movie and it takes place in a school, I pay much more attention to it then if it were somewhere else. I’m always interested in how teachers are portrayed in movies. They are usually terrible and horrible people.

What is something that people know you best for?

I am loud and I talk a lot. I think that my students know that I like birds, and so in all of my classes, I use photos of birds. People then ask me questions about birds a lot. I think that people know that one of my hobbies is birding.

What’s been your best experience with birding?

I think my best experience was in Cleveland, Ohio. So my wife and I were driving from Indiana to New York. We got an alert on our phone that there was a very rare bird, a Pomarine Jaeger, in Cleveland. So we took a detour from this trip to go see this bird. We got to this industrial park with what looked like eight million seagulls. Jaegers look like seagulls.They’re about that size and about that shape, and we thought, “we’re never going to see this bird.” What was cool about the fact that this bird was in Cleveland was that it migrates over the ocean, so it’s really hard to see unless you are out in the middle of the ocean on a boat. We hung around and there was a bunch of other birders there looking sad because they thought that they weren’t going to see this bird, people with cameras all lined up, just waiting for this bird to show up. And then, we were just about ready to go, and it popped up right in front of us and I got a great photo of it. The photo itself isn’t that impressive looking. If you showed it to someone else, they would say, “Yep, that’s a brown bird.” But to me, it’s the most amazing photo I’ve ever taken.

Is the photo hung up somewhere?

I have a picture of it in my bathroom. There are a lot of photos of birds in that bathroom, so it’s just one of the photos that’s there.

Would you say that’s your favorite bird of all time, and if not, what would be it?

It is not my favorite bird of all time, because I’ve only ever seen it once, so I don’t really know it. My favorite bird of all time would be the Red Breasted Nuthatch because they are very gregarious, very cute, very curious, and are very brave, so they aren’t afraid to ask for a peanut if they think you have one. Sometimes if you are in the woods and you have peanuts in your hand, they will land on your hand and take them. There aren’t many birds would do that, and they are also very adorable and small.

What led you to be a birder?

I blame my wife, Lisa. She is a birder and also an ornithologist, so she studies birds as part of her research. When I met her, she introduced me to birds by dragging me out early in the morning on cold, spring mornings, and I just thought it wasn’t fun at all. It’s really cold, you are standing outside, you’re almost trespassing on wastewater treatment plants to get photos of weird birds that have landed in these dirty pools of water. It seemed really unpleasant, but once I started to understand the diversity of birds that we could see and their behaviors, I became obsessed with taking pictures of them. I love trying to get a really good picture of every species of bird that we see and it’s a lot of fun. It’s like Pokemon Go, only for birds.

What has been your role working as the advisor to NVUnity?

I’ve always been interested in supporting LGBTQ groups and oganizations. So when I was living in China, I organized the country’s first ever gay festival. It was really exciting. It was called “Shanghai Pride” and it was in 2009. The first year we did it, it was pretty scary. We hadn’t done it before and it got shut down. It got a lot of international press and there was a lot of attention on us, and we were not prepared for that attention. But we got through it, and what we realized in the process was that it was something that the community there really needed. Unfortunately, I left right after the first year, but they just finished their tenth successful year. That was exciting and so I’m going to World Pride in New York that takes place in June to march with them. I’ve always been interested in how any groups that have marginalized identities can organize to help make their communities more supportive of who they are. I love advising NVUnity. One thing I love about it is that it’s student led. They see me as an advisor and I can help them make decisions but they are really taking the lead on what priorities are on campus, so it’s exciting to see what’s important to them and what I can do to help them achieve their goals.

What do you think the university does a really good job of when it comes to the LBGTQ community, and what could the university work on?

Something that we do a really good job at is saying yes to students who have ideas about organizing or work they want to do in clubs, and giving them support for that. Krista [Swahn] really helps students make change on campus. Something I think we absolutely need are gender-neutral bathrooms in all of our buildings. Stearns, for example, doesn’t have those, so someone who doesn’t feel comfortable going into segregated bathrooms, have to go to a different building to use the bathroom. I think that’s a big problem. I would love to see us change the infrastructure on campus to make it more inclusive for people who are nonbinary.

Did you ever teach at the elementary school level?

Yes. I had a great job because I was a “Special Teacher” which meant that I taught science and had a science classroom, and all of the classes came to my class for science. So I got to teach every kid in the school, kindergarten to sixth grade. I got to see them learn over time, and I got to interact with goofy kindergartners and also very serious fifth graders in the same day.

What’s been the best part of teaching at any level?

The relationships that I get to form with students are really meaningful to me. We always talk about how teachers have an impact on their students, and they do by trying to make spaces inclusive and supportive for them so that they can learn, but students have a great impact on teachers more than they realize. Teachers learn how the world is changing through the eyes of their students. They bring new ideas and I learn a lot from my students. People in the world sometimes feel lonely, and I have never, ever in my life ever felt lonely because I always have tons of students in my life.

What’s been the most difficult?

Absolutely not being able to help all of the students that I want to. It’s really hard when I see a student who is capable of amazing work and there is some barrier in their life that is not helping them achieve what I think they are capable of and not being able to help them figure out how to get there is really heartbreaking.

What led you to NVU-J?

So many things! Let me think… I will start big and I will work my way down. One of my passions is environmental education, and the state of Vermont does a great job in supporting environmental education. I love that. So many schools that I visit have “Forest Fridays” and outdoor classrooms, and it’s so exciting to me that schools are using the environment as a tool for learning. In terms of NVU-Johnson, I love that it’s a public liberal arts college, and that was one thing that I was interested in. When you finish your Ph.D, and you think about if you want to go into academia, which is what I did, you can think about many different kinds of institutions to go into. I was really dedicated to the liberal arts because it’s a great model of education. But most liberal arts programs are at private schools. I was really attracted to NVU-J because it’s a public liberal arts college, which makes the liberal arts more accessible to people who may not be able to pay the big tuition that are typically higher than public schools. I love that Johnson had an inclusive program where our students in elementary school are prepared to teach elementary school kids and special educators.

Do you have any superstitions?

No. I was a science teacher and I was attracted to science because I really liked explanations about the world that were based on evidence and not superstitions, so I don’t have a superstition.

If you could have one final meal, what would it be?

I would have an appetizer of chips and guacamole and a margarita. Then I would have fried chicken and waffles and collard greens for dinner, and maybe corn bread with really good butter and salt. Then for dessert, I would have oreo cheesecake.

What inspires you?

People who see problems in the world and figure out a way to enact social change those problems. We get so frustrated in the world because we have problems that we feel helpless in figuring out, and ultimately it’s up to us humans to figure out how to change systems to make them better and so when people actually figure out how to do it, it’s really inspiring to me and it gives me hope in when I try to make positive change and I fail.

What’s the thing that you like most about yourself?

That my ears are asymmetrical.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I love a day binge watching a show on Netflix, even if it’s bad. At least once a year, I will spend a day binge watching something, which I feel really guilty about because I live in a beautiful place with nature and birds, and I should be outside the whole time. But there is something really satisfying about not doing anything all day. I usually feel terrible at the end of the day like that, but I still do it.

Have you ever had a bad date?

So many. I kissed a lot of frogs to find my wife, and one of those frogs was when I was on date while I was in China. The woman was a French woman who I met in China, and we were getting along very swimmingly and then she told me she was psychic and she was hired in France to help detectives to help solve mysteries, and I realized that it wasn’t going to work. So I spent the whole rest of the date figuring out how to get out of the future of that relationship. So, as I said, I don’t believe in superstitions. I also don’t believe that it’s possible to be psychic, [so] I realized it was a clash of philosophies.

What would you want your legacy to be?

That I listened to my students, that they knew that I cared about them, that I pushed them to learn, and that I have high expectations for them, but they also know that I care about them and want them to succeed.