CULLOWHEE — Western Carolina University faculty member Gayle Houston Miller was honored Thursday (April 12) as one of the best teachers in The University of North Carolina system, drawing praise for the passion and integrity she exhibits in the classroom, and for her interest in teaching “the whole student.”
A faculty member at Western since 1989, Miller was among 16 recipients in the seventh annual Awards for Excellence in Teaching, presented by the UNC Board of Governors at a luncheon held in Chapel Hill. Each winner received a bronze medallion and $7,500 cash prize, presented by UNC President Molly Corbett Broad and Board of Governors Chairman Benjamin S. Ruffin.
Miller, an associate professor in WCU’s English department, says there are three tenets that guide her teaching — “to teach beyond the classroom, to teach with passion, and to teach with integrity.”
“I believe that I must be dedicated to teaching the whole student, moving outside the four walls of a classroom to the wider world beyond,” she said.
Each year, Miller’s Chaucer class conducts a medieval banquet in her home. She also invites her honors freshman English class to her home for a formal dinner, with the only requirement being that dinner conversation be about current events.
Miller keeps her passion for teaching fresh by consistently teaching classes she has not taught before, and by throwing away her notes at the end of each semester so she is forced to prepare new materials. She also takes risks, such as having her students evaluate her constantly throughout the semester, instead of at the end of the semester. “Because of this, I am constantly re-evaluating my course materials,” she said.
Miller strives to teach with integrity by letting her students know from the first day of class what her standards and expectations are. “My students know that I will treat them with respect, and I will demand that others in the class do the same. They also are aware that I want to be treated with respect,” she said.
“I am a very different teacher now than I was at the beginning of my career,” Miller said. “Then, I was anxious to prove myself as a scholar. Now, at the age of 60, I am keenly aware that I am nearing the end of my professional life. And I am making conscious decisions about how I want to be remembered — always, as a teacher.”
A native of Colquitt, Ga., Miller earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Maine, and master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Georgia. She taught at the University of Georgia before joining the WCU faculty.
Since her arrival at Western, Miller has been a finalist twice for the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, the top teaching award presented by the university, and, before winning it this year, she had been a finalist twice for the Board of Governor’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching. Miller also has been nominated for the College of Arts and Sciences teaching award every year she has taught at WCU.
Miller won WCU’s Hunter Scholar Award, which promotes traditional scholarship, in 1992, and she has received two grants to participate in summer seminars from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Recipients of the Awards for Excellence in Teaching were nominated by special committees on their home campuses, and selected by the Board of Governors Committee on Teaching Awards.
Established by the Board of Governors in 1994 to underscore the importance of teaching and to reward good teaching across the university system, the awards are given annually to a tenured faculty member from each UNC campus. Winners must have taught at their present institution at least seven years, and no one may receive the award more than once.