Cardinal band teacher Luke Miller was named his school’s Teacher of the Year during the Druzilla F. Clark Educators Foundation’s annual awards presentation Friday at the Fairfield Golf & Country Club.
The event was the third annual awards presentation honoring Clark, an elementary school teacher who taught in the Fairfield and Cardinal Community School Districts from 1925 until her retirement in 1972. The foundation bearing her name was started through an anonymous donor who had Clark as his elementary school teacher.
This year, the DFC Educators Foundation will distribute a total of $38,000 among the first-year teachers in both districts for successful completion of their contract year and to each “Teacher of the Year” in both districts for outstanding service to their students. Though Cardinal announced its Teacher of the Year Friday, Fairfield’s Teacher of the Year will be announced at its teacher appreciation breakfast June 6.
Each teacher honored will receive $2,000. Cardinal has 11 teachers being recognized, and Fairfield has eight.
Ralph Messerli, president of the foundation’s board of directors, remarked, “This is a good thing for our young teachers who are just starting out, and who need a little financial help after just graduating from college.”
Messerli explained that the donor created this foundation to honor a teacher who turned his life around.
“[The donor] wants people to understand that Druzilla Clark changed him, and he’s hoping that he can help some teachers do the same thing to other kids,” Messerli said. “Teachers might not always realize it, but they are significant in shaping a kid’s life.”
Miller received high praise from Cardinal superintendent Joel Pedersen, who introduced all the Cardinal teachers during Friday’s event.
“He’s a great role model for kids, and we’re fortunate to have him,” Pedersen said. “Sometimes I have to tell him he can’t take the kids [to a performance] because there’s a snowstorm, because he wants to go. He’s willing to give up any night or weekend if it will benefit the students.”
Pedersen was hired at Cardinal in 2010, the same year as Miller. The superintendent said having teachers like Miller makes his job much easier. As long as he gives them the resources they need, all he has to do is get out of the way, and watch them do the rest.
“If you get the right people with passion, they take the ball and run with it,” Pedersen said. “Luke pushes himself more than anybody pushes him. He’s been building this program ever since he got here, and now he’s growing leaders in the band, too.”
Miller said he was truly touched to receive this recognition from the school.
“It is a very high honor that anyone would consider me of that caliber,” he said. “I’m greatly honored and really humbled by it.”
Pedersen said Cardinal has seen several “firsts” under Miller: a Division 1 rating at state concert band contest, which Miller said was “a big one for us – we had been waiting a while for that;” a Cardinal student made the Iowa All-State band, which Miller said “for a small-school band, it just seemed impossible, but we’ve been going after it, and one of our students was able to achieve it;” and the school has participated in more honor band festivals such as at the state’s three public universities.
Miller said he didn’t let Cardinal’s small size limit his lofty goals for the band program.
“You never make an honor band you don’t try out for,” he said. “We just kept trying out and trying out, going to clinics to find out how to get it.”
Miller found that most students good enough to make honor band take private lessons on top of their school lessons, so he encouraged his students to do that. He said the top performers start auditioning for the band in seventh grade, and by the time they’re in high school, they’ve built enough experience and skill to have a good chance at earning a spot.
Miller said 32 students are in the high school band. When he took over, the number was in the low 20s.
“It’s taken awhile to build a culture so the kids will stick with it,” he said. “But the more success we’ve had, the more students are staying in the program.”
Miller envisions great things for the Comet band program because of some large classes coming through. Instead of starting 20 kids in band at the elementary level like he has in the past, he’s now enrolling close to 50.
In response to the growing need for instruction, the district hired former band teacher Ed VanderLinden to teach two days a week. Miller is appreciative that Superintendent Pedersen went to bat for him in hiring an assistant. Miller said VanderLinden has provided a huge boost to the program.
Miller grew up in Riverside and attended Highland High School, graduating in 1988. He’s known he wanted a career in music since he was a little boy.
“I started on the tuba in sixth grade,” he said. “It was the biggest instrument, and that’s why I picked it. I fell in love with music.”
Miller got an undergraduate degree from the University of Northern Iowa, then got his master’s in performance on the tuba from Western Michigan University. He was conflicted about whether to go into music teaching or performance. And now he doesn’t have to choose, because he gets to do both. Not only does he teach band at Cardinal, he also performs in the Ottumwa Symphony Orchestra.
After graduating from college, Miller has taught band in Missouri, in Hamburg, Iowa, in Mason City, and then another round at Hamburg after taking a couple years off from teaching. He left Hamburg to take the job at Cardinal.
“I feel like I’m back home in southeast Iowa,” he said.
Miller is married to wife Jennifer, and together the couple has five children.