Professor’s passion for teaching remains strong after 50 years

Mary Ellen Miller received the title of WKU’s first poet laureate after working at the university for over 50 years. Miller has been an active teacher and writer while also arranging events to support arts and literature. Katie Mclean/Herald

Mackenzie Mathews

Mary Ellen Miller believes that if you enjoy your job, you should continue working for as long as possible. That’s why she’s spent half a century teaching at WKU.

Miller is entering her 51st year as a professor and said her passion for teaching is still very much alive.

“People talk about teacher burn-out, but I don’t think I’ve had that yet,” she said. “If I wake up one morning, dreading class, I’d call in and say, ‘Bring the [retirement] papers.’”

Miller, the oldest employee at WKU, said her time as a teacher seems surreal to her, as sometimes it doesn’t register how long she has been teaching. She said every day continues to bring pride as students turn in poems that they have spent their time on.

“No two days are alike,” she said, after explaining she could have never worked a monotonous career. “That’s something I especially like about teaching.”

Miller is from Willard and started teaching in her twenties. She said that because she was so close in age to her students, she felt the need to refer to them as “mister” and “miss” in order to establish authority and respect.

She found that she has become less formal with her students as her years of teaching progressed, but that esteem is far from necessary now, as her students and colleagues have the utmost respect for her.

Louisville senior Becky Thieman said she admires Miller for her tenacity.

“I adore her because she’s feisty,” she said. “You know the quote, ‘Though she be but little, she is fierce’? That’s her in a nutshell.”

Miller’s vibrant spirit, passion for writing, and blunt opinion has inspired her students to take their works beyond academics. Thieman said Miller takes it upon herself to make sure her class reaches full potential.

“She really helped me in terms of pushing me — and my entire class — to submit to literary journals,” she said.

Believing that it is important, but not essential, for students to get published early, Miller has seen that most students find a place for their poetry to be heard.

Being a published writer herself, Miller said that writing and teaching are an inseparable combination, especially for creative writing teachers.

She began writing in the sixth grade by imitating what she read in books and poems. She said poetry is one her favorites forms of expression.

“The best inspiration for poetry, I tell my students, is to read good poetry,” she said.

For her, students that read poetry are easier to teach, because they know something about it. They have habits that she must help them break, but she said if they are good students, that is not difficult at all.

Robert Hale, Head of the English Department, knows what an asset Miller is to the school. He discussed how much she cares for not only the department but for WKU as a whole. He said she exhibits this in her constant assistance to former and current colleagues and students.

“She brings a rare combination of wisdom, empathy and humor to the table that makes work not only incredibly productive, but also a real pleasure,” he said.