Even if Dana Miles didn’t have a massive poster board in her classroom that read “Congratulations Dana!”, it would be pretty clear just how much her students love her.
On Monday, Miles — an English language arts teacher at the Washington School for the Deaf — was named the 2023 Washington State Teacher of the Year. After taking a moment to bask in the glow of the accolade, Miles was quick to turn the spotlight to her students and the deaf community.
“I was shocked, humbled, touched. I’ve received so much support from our community and beyond,” said Miles, who communicates using American Sign Language. “But I saw this as an opportunity to educate people about the deaf community and our language. We are so rich with culture and connection. I’m glad this is an opportunity to broadcast this to everyone.”
Though the School for the Deaf is small in comparison with others in Vancouver’s neighboring districts, its sense of community and cooperation is physically ingrained in the building’s walls perhaps unlike any other school in the state. Throughout the halls hang photos of just about every graduate in the school’s history — including the class of 1993, which features Miles herself — dating back to the early 1900s.
In Miles’ classroom, desks are arranged in a semicircle to ensure that lines of sight can always be maintained. The layout allows for students and teachers to be able to see one another clearly in their communication using American Sign Language.
“This school is like a deaf Hogwarts,” Miles said, smiling. “They have full access to information here; they don’t miss out on anything. They can be whatever they want to be here. For me, that’s what makes this school magical.”
On Wednesday, she spoke freely with students in an advisory period about local fundraisers, the upcoming football game and whether Tom Brady made the right decision in coming back for a 23rd season in the National Football League. She approached and encouraged the conversation not as a superior, but as more of a peer.
“I treat all my students with respect,” she said. “I encourage that kind of conversation. I want them to know I value their perspectives and opinions.”
Preparing for the world beyond school
Miles has taught in a variety of positions for more than 10 years and comes from what she described as a family of educators. Her husband, Billy Miles, also works just down the hall as an art teacher.
“My mother was a teacher, her mother was a teacher, my aunt — it goes on,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s genetic.”
Most recently, Miles’ work has focused on the school’s work experience program, which aims to teach practical, real-life skills to students for life beyond the classroom.
Her passion for the topic, she said, comes from a previous job as an employment consultant.
“I really had no idea how many barriers deaf people have toward finding employment,” Miles said. “I try to make sure our students actually have the opportunity to prepare for a variety of career options. It’s about teaching things like soft skills, where to look for employment and how to navigate those conversations.”
She also feels strongly that education for those who are deaf or hard of hearing should include discussions about their personal rights and how to handle situations of prejudice.
“Dana develops authentic relationships with her students. They love her, and they know they can always count on her to be in their corner,” said Shauna Bilyeu, the school’s principal. “She freely shares her own experiences — stories of what it means to be a deaf female and how to navigate the hearing world. She is a passionate teacher, and I respect her tremendously.”
Miles will now be considered for the National Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced in the spring of 2023.