Teacher Stories: Jenna Miller, English Teacher at Morris Mills High School, Morris County

I think the biggest lesson I want to teach my students is learning how to empathize with people. My smallest class is 15 students this year. My biggest is 25. And among so many different students, a lot of them fail to realize how different they are and how we’re all going through something very different in our lives. So empathy is a big one. You know, on the first day of school, I tell them my number one rule is to be kind to each other. Because you don’t know what somebody’s life is like outside of the four walls of our classroom. You have no idea. So any kind of lack of kindness I try to address immediately in order to kind of develop that safe space. Empathy is really important to me.

I remember vividly the 2008 Great Recession. My dad was a landscape architect for a really long time. I remember coming home from school one day and he wasn’t at work, and talking to my mom. My mom broke the news to my brother and me that we wouldn’t be able to go to the water park that summer. When we asked why, she told us the news:  because our father was laid off, and it will be too expensive. And as a sixth/seventh grader living in a shore town, Breakwater Beach was a really big thing. And I remember we would go every summer. That was the first summer that we couldn’t go. So it was that kind of moment that I realized that we had to cut back on a lot of stuff. So then I stopped asking for things altogether.

My dad was able to find steady work at a local Lowe’s. But, yeah, it was pretty bad. My mom usually worked nights so she could put in some additional shifts and my dad would be working here and there small, odd jobs. But that job at Lowe’s really got him through. I was kind of thrust into that pretty early on; I was in middle school, so it was scary. Two years after my dad lost his job, he had a heart attack. He had like 90% blockages in two or three of his major arteries and was unaware of it. He was shoveling snow during one of our major snowstorms, and it hit him then. My mom told him to take an aspirin and wait for the ambulance. The doctor later said that she saved his life. He’s going to be 62 in March, and now he’s probably in the best shape of his life.

Interview by Gregory Andrus, Portraits of the Jersey Shore www.portraitsofthejerseyshore.com


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