“I wasn’t the ideal student,” begins Keith Miller’s essay in the online platform Medium. “I was either asleep in class or glaring at my teachers from across the room as I struggled to find the relevance in what they were teaching me.”
In Confessions of an “At-Risk” Black Boy Turned Educator, he continues, “To some of the teachers, especially those who didn’t look like me, I was the stereotype of every other misunderstood young, Black male student in the traditional classroom environment: a troublemaker who came to school to give his teachers grief, while struggling with some untold trauma at home, as his single parent struggles to make ends meet.
“A lot of that was true … But much of it was not.”
With support from his mother and a few teachers, Miller pushed on despite systemic racism and low expectations to uncover his brilliance — and his voice. He received a Gates Millennium Scholar award, graduated from Northwestern University, led positive youth development work in a youth mentoring agency and a business school and wrote compelling campaigns for an education reform organization in New York. He now works as director of youth programs at the Georgia nonprofit Deep Center.
Miller also completed the Master of Science for Professional Educators (MSPE) program offered from UW–Madison, an online program that he finished while working at Deep Center.
“Not only have I learned an incredible amount about how to take my teaching practice to another level,” Miller says of the program, “I have been able to support my organization in going further, in leading my team deeper and in transforming key facets of our work, such as transforming the way we use evaluation to positively impact youth outcomes and developing a healing literacy framework that demonstrates how we use arts and culture to fuel the creative fires of Savannah’s young people and the village that supports them.”
Courage to have difficult conversations
Miller says his September 2019 essay for Medium was designed around his statement for application to the MSPE program.
The fully online, two-year MSPE program is offered through the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The program integrates courses from three departments — Educational Psychology, Curriculum & Instruction and Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis — leading to a Master of Science in Educational Psychology.
“I entered the MSPE program wanting the opportunity to learn in an environment where I would feel seen, heard, valued and supported in pushing myself out of my comfort zone,” he says. “So (the essay) was written from the lens of why I wanted to do the program and what I had to contribute.”
After completing the MSPE, he rewrote and published the essay and realized the program helped him accomplish his goal.
An award-winning educator himself, Miller was impressed with the MSPE instructors, “ … most importantly their heart and openness in having the very difficult conversations that many educational spaces steer away from, conversations that require those in power and privilege to grapple with the everyday reality that often negatively affects teachers, youth and communities of color, especially if they aren’t people of color themselves.”
Miller says instructors encouraged students to bring lived experience from their jobs to the classroom, leading to powerful exchanges among people from different countries, races, nationalities and genders.
“(Instructors’) willingness to allow us to lead many of these life-changing conversations gave us the kind of flexibility yet rigor to learn new skills, apply them in real-time and also critique, reference and inform how and what we were learning to become the best educators we could be,” he says.
Miller says his UW–Madison experience was truly transformed when he worked with Bianca Baldridge, assistant professor in educational policy studies, to develop his master’s thesis, the first of its kind in the MSPE program. His qualitative study following eight Black and Latino boys in Deep Center programming, “To He Who Has Never Seen Rainbows”: Affirming Healing Literacies in the Lives of Boys and Young Men of Color, examines how they experience trauma as a result of traditional school environments and how community based organizations like the Deep Center create safe and brave spaces to support their healing, growth and trauma.
Deep Center, profound work
Deep Center is an arts, youth leadership and social justice nonprofit in Savannah, Ga. Their work is trauma-informed and culturally responsive, promoting a “roots-cause” model of youth and positive community development through direct service, systems change and narrative change.
“We empower young people to thrive as learners, community leaders and agents of change,” Miller says, adding that the organization also supports families and adult allies to “make Savannah a more just and equitable place.”
Through the MSPE program, Miller devised a new way to measure Deep Center programs and proposed new ways of thinking about their work, such as developing evaluation rubrics to measure youth outcomes centered around hope, fearlessness, critical literacy and healing. As a result, Keith will be working with a team of researchers at a local university to develop and validate a new quantitative and qualitative survey tool to implement in programs with hopes of sharing with other organizations.
“That’s far beyond what I ever expected I’d be able to accomplish when first applying to the program,” he says. “And that doesn’t even include the other lessons I’ve learned from peers, professors and other allies at the university.”
“I am constantly filled with joy when I think about the people I had the privilege of learning, growing and creating alongside over these past two years,” Miller says of his fellow MSPE students.
Although fully online, students work in a cohort model and complete assignments together, becoming co-learners.
“The first thing I did after I officially completed my thesis was print it out, take a picture and send it to a few of the students, now considered to be friends,” he says. “We continue to plan on supporting each other now and into the future.”
Miller values connection, always learning from those around him, and the concept of a village that he continues to embody in his work.
“My personal journey as a student and educator keeps me doing this work because it wasn’t until I experienced what it means to be a part of a village that I understood the true power of educators,” he says. “Our ability to teach and learn from our youth, to be enriched and challenged by the parents and communities we serve, and, most importantly, to support the healing of others so we can heal ourselves.”
For more information, see the MS for Professional Educators website