Miller Uses Passion for Food to Inspire Students
Debbie Miller, who wrapped up her ninth year teaching culinary arts at Lamar County School District’s Oak Grove High School (OGHS) this year, was named the Mississippi Association for Career and Technical Education Teacher of the Year for the 2019-2020 school year.
Miller assists Tytiana King, a sophomore at OGHS, in sautéing vegetables that will go into a chicken stew.
Miller shows OGHS junior Gabriel Pickett how to segment an orange for a fruit salad.
Debbie Miller’s passion for teaching and food goes back to her childhood.
Miller was always the teacher when she played school with her four siblings, but she became the pupil in the kitchen, studying intently as her grandmothers — one rooted in French Cajun ancestry and the other adept in Deep South country cooking — created fabulous dishes.
Miller, who was named the Mississippi Association for Career and Technical Education Teacher of the Year for the 2019-2020 school year, recently wrapped up her ninth year of sharing her passion for food and innovative practices in the kitchen with students as the culinary arts instructor at Lamar County School District’s Oak Grove High School.
Miller began working in the district in 1998 as an administrative assistant then bookkeeper. She transferred over to the Lamar County Career and Technical Center in 2003 as a bookkeeper with additional career and technical education (CTE) responsibilities.
“I really didn’t have an immense knowledge of CTE until I began working at the center,” she said. “I believe the majority of Mississippians don’t know the advantages of CTE and what it has to offer students.”
Eventually the culinary arts instructor position came open, and former Director Rita Bush encouraged her to apply.
Miller not only teaches her students the basics of the kitchen and how to prepare and cook delicious food, but she also develops their soft skills — confidence, discipline, teamwork and problem-solving.
Some students never turned on a stove before enrolling in her class, and another once used a tablespoon of yeast instead of 2 ¼ teaspoons while making bread. Miller tells them to not be discouraged and “realize they can step back and problem solve.”
While most of her students don’t have intentions of going into the world of culinary arts, they realize what Miller teaches them can benefit their daily lives, regardless of the career pathway they choose.
“I might have a fourth of them go into the industry as a lifelong vocation,” she said. “I’ve had former students who have achieved their master’s in their field of study, then return to speak to my current students. They convey to the students that they knew they weren’t going to pursue [culinary arts] as a career but were able to support themselves in college by working in the food service industry and feed themselves by not having to rely on ramen noodles all the time.”
For some of her students, the choice to get into culinary arts as a vocation can serve as a lifeline and pull them out of difficult situations. Miller mentioned one student who was a challenge to work with initially. The student lived in an unsupervised situation and was “headed for disaster.” He confided in Miller, telling her he was “living on the streets, gang banging and dope slinging.” She saw culinary arts as a way out for him and believed it was his purpose in life.
“He still works in the industry, has a passion for food and is good at it,” Miller said. “I took a chance on him and put him on my culinary team. He did well and created a sense of pride in himself which was awesome to witness.”
Because of her class, the student received opportunities from some of Miller’s industry partners and spent time speaking with Nick Wallace, a Mississippi chef who competed on Food Network’s “Chopped.”
“It makes you feel good when students have found their purpose and you have played a part in the discovery. You know they’re going to be successful in life — good citizens — and your influence affected them,” she said. “The most beneficial takeaways are not the culinary skills I teach them but my belief in them that results in a belief in themselves.
“I realized that I have to show them I care and want what’s best for them,” Miller added.
She encourages fellow educators not to be afraid to let students know you care, but Miller also advises them to be a mentor instead of trying to be their friend.
“I tell my incoming students, ‘I’m old enough to be your grandma, and I’m going to treat you like my grandkids. I’m going to love you and care for you, but I’m going to expect the best out of you,’” she said.
When Miller sees her students put forth their best effort and accomplish culinary feats they didn’t think possible, it fills her with pride.
Although the teacher of the year award recognizes her accomplishments in the classroom, she knows the true winners of the award are her students.
“Being recognized for them and their hard work is a reward,” Miller said. “I’m going to continue doing what I do to the best of my ability, whether I’m the teacher of the year or not. I’m very honored and humbled, but it won’t change me. I’ll continue to love on my students.”