“How many of you love PE?” an energetic figure in a baseball cap with a whistle hanging around his neck asked a large gathering of Sayéik: Gastineau Community School students spread across their playground.
And youth hands raised quickly and young voices exulted praise loudly to P.E. teacher Dirk Miller’s question.
Chances are, if you were ever a student in one of Miller’s Sayéik: Gastineau Community School or Juneau Community Charter School classes, your hand would have shot up in the air just as quickly as the playground full of students at Sayeik: Gastineau School on Thursday, one of Miller’s last days as a physical education teacher and the school’s Field Day — something he initiated over the years.
“Mister Miller is just an awesome teacher,” Anna Begenyi, 11, said. “He is always telling jokes, he is super funny. I’m pretty sad he is retiring. He had so many options and clubs for everybody. I loved Skippers, the jump roping club, it definitely helped me with my jump roping skills. I also loved Bike To School Day, it was fun to bike to school with my friends. I am going to miss him.”
Miller worked with many City and Borough of Juneau planners and volunteers over the years to establish safe outdoor activities for youth and has had a hand in a wide array of activities, including coaching basketball, running, Nordic skiing and volley ball and running elementary trail running, biking, jump roping and a fishing club. Miller has also served as both president and vice president of Juneau Education Association and been a member of the union’s contract negotiation team.
Scarlett Bischoff, 8, said P.E. was her favorite class.
“I like getting outside,” she said. “I like Bike to School Day. I like tug of war and the boy and girl class races.”
Primary teacher Mitch Haygood moved to Juneau in 1992 and met Miller on a recreation league basketball court, they went to graduate school together at University of Alaska Southeast and have been teaching together at Sayéik: Gastineau Community School since 2002.
“I have known Dirk my entire life in Juneau,” Haygood said. “We go back a long ways. Kids love him. He gets kids. He does a lot of unique things in the gym and he has taught all these after school clubs that are just very unique. Like he did a fishing club one year… the kids just think he is the best. And he is. He just really relates to kids. He’s flexible and as a great sense of humor. And of course doing Field Day, the kids really look forward to that end of year celebration. He is Gastineau School. He was always thinking of the next thing he could do. It is definitely going to be a big change when he leaves but he has promised he is going to put his name on the sub list and show up every now and then. You can’t replace Dirk and I would not want to be the one following in his footsteps but the person coming in will be able to be their own unique self thanks to his groundwork.”
Title 1 reading specialist Eliza Dorn came to Sayéik: Gastineau Community School in 2013 but has worked with Miller over a period of 13 years.
“Dirk brings everything,” Dorn said. “He is somebody that has inspired generations of kids. He is not afraid to get kids outside. He has brought all of our skiing and skating and biking. He has done trail running club… he is just always up for adventure and fun and it’s pretty cool how he loves to play and he loves to play with kids, and he loves to play outside and has gotten a lot of our kids exploring Douglas. That is something some teachers shy away from because it takes a lot of work to get a bunch of kids on bikes or get everybody on skis out to the campground. It’s not easy, but he does it every year.”
Field Day included kids walking a “tightrope” with ski poles to balance, a tug of war, hurdling, water balloons, a dunk tank and whiffle ball. And among the youthful smiles were wider grins by adults keeping a tab on all the activity.
“He always wants to get kids outside,” said Liz White, a Sayéik: Gastineau Community School office assistant of 19 years. “That is his main goal. Get kids outside no matter what it takes. Put them on skis, put them on snowshoes… he has brought in all sorts of awesome equipment. He has bought bikes with a grant. So anything he can do to get a kid outside and on equipment and learn how to use it is like his purpose in life. He makes time. He has figured out how to take every kid in the school out cross-country skiing to the campground. He’s figured out how to put every kid on snowshoes, every kid on roller blades, every kid to the ice skating rink… he has at least given them all that experience at least once, or all five years or six years of their lives.”
White’s two children, now 26 and 24, were in Miller’s classes and went on to compete in cross-country skiing, running and track and field.
“I am sure it was partly from Mr. Miller’s influence,” she said.
Principal Stacy Diouf, who came to Sayéik: Gastineau Community School in 2020, said Miller would be greatly missed by staff, families and, “mostly kids. Dirk means the world to kids. He always keeps kids at the forefront. He’s all about kids having fun and staff having fun and being active…. he will be greatly missed and we hope he comes back for visits.”
Diouf would fall victim to Miller’s arm during the dunk tank portion of Field Day and get soaked.
“I think I had better apologize,” said Miller after. “But the kids enjoyed it.”
Miller has even started an orchard above the playground behind the school where teachers plant a class tree and students monitor the growth through their stints at school.
Paraeducator Chayla Ault has been at Sayéik: Gastineau Community School for two years and said her classroom loves getting P.E. time with Miller.
“He just really inspires all the kids to do sports,” Ault said. “He gets them happy. He jokes around but they all know he is serious when he calls them by their real names. It helps my classroom when they come back in. There is a lot of energy and kids have got to get it out someway.”
Nevaea Johnson, 10, and Nolan Seris, 11, said they like the games Miller initiates and getting outside.
“I like Yoshi,” Johnson said.
“It’s where there are two mats,” said Seris. “The blue mat is the yellow team but the yellow mat is the blue team and they have to get to their mats, divided by the middle section. So, if say, somebody from the yellow team goes on the blue side they can be tagged and vice versa. I am going to miss him.”
“Definitely,” Johnson said.
There are honors Miller has been presented with, such as Discovery Southeast Out Door Teacher of the Year and Healthy Teachers Featured Teacher, among others. There is the First Lady Look to a Book award from Frank Murkowski’s wife, Nancy.
His favorite honor, however, is a medal hanging in his office.
“A student made it for me,” he said. “It says Number One P.E. Teacher, and then another one that says You’re the Best Gym Teacher in School.”
In one 12-year period of his 24 teaching years Miller was also co-teaching at Juneau Community Charter School.
“It was preschool to middle school for a stretch,” he said.
When Miller was asked what he would miss, a student passing by overheard and chimed in.
“Me,” Sigrid Bogert, 10, said. “And I am going to miss that he always cared when someone was hurt and let them sit out. I learned a bunch of skills. I learned to play kickball.”
And Bogert skipped off to join a cluster of classmates.
“I’m going to miss kids like Sigrid who have so much fun in P.E.,” Miller said. “I have been lucky to work at Gastineau School, and the Charter School, with teachers that support all the outdoor stuff I have been able to do. This year I have taken kids skiing, I have taken kids ice skating, sledding… and none of that happens without the support of a team. I have been lucky I get to do the kinds of things I do. It is not about me. It is about the team and the kids.”
Miller, a former journalist before becoming a teacher, has spent his entire life in Alaska and plans to stay in Juneau.
• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at Klas.Stolpe@gmail.com.