Engaging enthusiasm in the classroom

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Peter Miley, a fourth-grade teacher at Ponderosa Elementary in Post Falls, brings a hands-on approach with project-based learning to the classroom. He stands next to a 3D printer he uses to help students learn science, math and about computer-aided design. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

“Hey! There’s a dead body over here!”

Peter Miley, a student teacher at the time, didn’t expect to hear those words from one of his kindergarten students. He dashed after the boy to see what the fuss was about.

It was a leaf.

A really big leaf, to be fair. But a leaf.

Moments like that are exactly why Miley loves working with kids, he said: Kids are ridiculous, unpredictable, not yet hindered by social expectations.

Now a fourth-grade teacher at Ponderosa Elementary in Post Falls, Miley discovered his passion for teaching in an unexpected place: the Kroc Center, where he worked as a swim instructor. It was where he learned to work with kids, and he went on to teach and multiple swim schools before deciding to become a different kind of teacher.

Encouraged by his wife, Miley enrolled in the PACE program at Lewis-Clark State College. PACE is a teacher education program that provides a mix of coursework and classroom teaching experiences.

“I was lucky enough to come out of that program with a level of guidance, leadership and personal connection to mentors that I wouldn’t have received anywhere else,” he said.

At Lewis-Clark State College, Miley said he was supported by mentors who did more than help him play to his strengths—they challenged him to work on his weaknesses. Even after graduation, many of those relationships have continued.

The hands-on approach to learning that he experienced in the PACE program has informed the way he teaches. Miley said he emphasizes “organic,” project-based learning, which makes science a favorite subject in his classroom at Ponderosa Elementary.

“Engagement through enthusiasm is the bumper-sticker version of my teaching philosophy,” he said. “If you’re stoked, they’re stoked. It starts right there.”

Recently, Miley’s students have enjoyed tinkering with a new 3D printer, learning about computer-aided design in the process. It’s one of many ways that Miley bridges the gap between the classroom and the world beyond.

“I wish I had that kind of stuff when I was a kid,” he said with a laugh. “It opened a box of learning for them. The possibilities are endless with that thing.”

Miley said he came out of college brimming with idealism. He pictured his future students standing on desks, like in “Dead Poets Society.” After a year of teaching, he said his ideas are a little more realistic.

“To say I’m just going to go in there and be Robin Williams, inspiring kids to read poems in caves, would be a lie,” he said. “It’s nice to find that balance between what I have to do and what I want to do. There’s a way to accommodate both to their fullest.”

He’s retained his passion for working with kids and encouraging their dreams. That’s what got him into teaching in the first place, after all: an “appreciation for their ridiculousness,” as he put it.

Miley said his students are always surprising him.

“Because they don’t have built-in social paradigms like we do, they do things that are out of the box and blow your mind at times,” he said. “What are they going to say next? What’s going to happen next? They don’t fit the same mental mold that adults do.”

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