Over the 33 years that Alan Miller has been a part of the English department at Berkeley High School, he has gained a reputation as a hard working figure who expects responsibility from himself and his students. In recent years, word of Miller’s retirement has floated around, and now his final year at BHS is upon him.
Miller grew up in a tightly packed Chicago household, with his immediate family and another family totalling up to 13 people occupying a five bedroom home. As a youth, Miller attended the Latin School of Chicago, a selective private school, where he won a poetry contest alongside Gwendolyn Brooks.
Out of Chicago, Miller attended Amherst College where he studied English and American Studies. When Miller graduated, he delivered a fiery farewell speech to the Amherst class of 1982. Miller lambasted his classmates who had not taken advantage of the significant privileges and opportunities afforded to them by attending such a prestigious private university. “If you’ve come here and you’ve never stepped … outside of your comfort zone, I said, you were not an educated person, and you just wasted your money,” Miller recalled of his address. The speech earned him some infamy in the school’s alumni publication, the Amherst Record, which wrote about the controversial speech for two years afterward.
Miller left Massachusetts for the San Francisco Bay in the same year, coinciding with a recession that caused rampant budget cuts in schools. In 1991, Miller came to BHS after a two year stint as a girls’ junior varsity basketball coach at Richmond High School. Before settling on BHS, Miller interviewed for Skyline High School when he came out as gay to his prospective employers. “This was 1989, so there weren’t any people dealing with issues like that, and so they said to me that they wanted to talk about it outside the room,” Miller recalled. He told them that if they left the room, he would walk away from the job all together.
Skyline ended up offering Miller the job, but he decided on BHS instead. When he came to BHS he found that everything was based on seniority. The most senior faculty members had all the rights to parking spaces, teaching upperclassmen, and teaching electives; new hires like himself were more often relegated to teaching freshmen. “When I came in, they hadn’t hired an English teacher for eight years,” Miller said. “The teacher who was hired before me … was still temporary.” That meant the teacher went without any union protection while doing all the work of a full time educator. “I thought that was cuckoo,” said Miller. “I shut my mouth and joined the union and tried to figure out how I was going to kill that practice.”
At the same time, Miller asserted himself as an educator, telling the principal who hired him that he “expected to teach AP classes by the second year.” Again he threatened to walk out if they failed to meet that expectation.
As a result, Miller began teaching an Advanced Placement level course on patterns in Black literature in his second year of teaching and continued to do so for 13 years. Now Miller teaches IB English Language and Literature and African American Literature. He gets to school around 7:30 in the morning and meets with his fellow faculty members like Melissa Jimenez to have lunch and coordinate their curricula. Because he does not take his work home, Miller will sometimes stay long hours after the school day in room C117 finishing the day’s work past sunset.
Miller became the vice president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers in 1993 and continued to serve until 2006. During their time in charge, Miller and BFT president Barry Fike directed the union’s energy toward representing Bekeley’s teachers. They visited every single teacher in the district over the course of two years, spending a whole day in each classroom. Miller wanted to be sure that the challenges of Berkeley’s temporary and hard working teachers were addressed. “You can’t sustain a profession like this with martyrs,” said Miller. “That’s why at the end of my career, I’m telling teachers, ask for more and keep asking for more.”
Looking back on his years of teaching, Miller is most proud of the guest speakers, field trips, and assemblies he’s been able to organize for both his own students and the whole school.
“My guesstimate is that I’ve done over 110 assemblies over the course of my career here,” said Miller. These have included visiting world storytellers, poets, and notable speakers, assemblies about AIDS and gun violence awareness, and field trips to events like UC Berkeley’s Noon Concerts. Miller is a strong believer in opening up the learning environment. “I don’t think it’s all supposed to take place just in the classroom,” he said.
On one occasion in 1996, Miller’s event featuring the authors Sonia Sanchez and Sapphire moved a student to tears. “She said that it was very meaningful for her to see these African American women writers,” Miller remembered. “She had never experienced anything like that … it was just such a powerful experience for her.”
For a couple years, Miller taught in the short lived BHS program Life Academy, located in the portables at Washington Elementary. The students were “bright and funny,” remembered Miller, but they each had troubles that made school less of a priority. At the same time, “they wanted to be here,” said Miller. Many of the students at Life Academy struggled with a lack of meaningful relationships with adults, low motivation, troubled home situations, and drug and alcohol problems.
Over the course of his time there, he watched the students’ motivation and performance improve. “I’m proud that most of them graduated,” Miller said. “We got them off to a good start.” Although the program is gone now, and Berkeley has changed since then, Miller still suspects that those issues still remain unresolved. “I’ve learned that if you don’t really make it a priority to keep the things that have worked, they disappear,” Miller reflected. Since he started teaching at BHS, “a lot of the diversity … has been sucked out.”
After he leaves BHS, Miller plans to travel to Bangladesh, South Africa, and Nigeria, and, having received what he considers to be a “privileged education” and being printed in over 30 publications, he hopes to write about education.
Miller is concerned by the culture’s growing abandonment of reading and writing, but he expressed his hope for BHS students saying, “I trust your generation much more obviously than I trust my own … my generation is quite happy doing a lot of stupid stuff and leaving things the way that they are.”
In his years at BHS, Miller has definitely made a change.