“At John Carroll, school wasn’t about finding the right answers. It was about asking the right questions and trying to understand why we believe what we believe.”
Dr. Chad Miller is a Specialist at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa’s Institute for Teacher Education. He also serves as the director of teacher development at the University’s Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education. In this hybrid role, Miller teaches methods and philosophy for children courses in the College of Education to secondary teacher candidates, as well as graduate students. He also serves as a philosopher in residence, where he collaborates with and supports K-12 teachers as they incorporate the activity of philosophy into their classroom practice. Prior to his work at the University, Miller was a Hawaii public high school teacher for 10 years. In 2012, he was recognized as Hawaii’s Teacher of the Year.
Q: Why did you attend JCU?
A: The primary reason I chose John Carroll was to play football. A dear family friend and football coach played at JCU in the ‘70s and always spoke about how family driven it was. He continued to be part of the community far after graduation, and the way he talked about how John Carroll was impacting his life as an adult was always on my mind. I wanted to be part of something that was bigger than myself.
Q: What story or experience best reflects your time at JCU?
A: In first-year seminar as a freshman, my professor was Dr. James Swindal, a philosophy professor. Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities was the first book we read. 12 of us were sitting in a circle, and Dr. Swindal asked, “Chad, why don’t you start us off. What did you think about the reading last night?” I had taken copious notes, and I started sharing back what was in the text. He stopped me and said, “We all know what the author wrote, Chad. I want to know what you think about it.” I wasn’t prepared to answer that question.
From there, it became a challenge. Going beyond the text to question what I truly thought about it. The competitor in me said, “I’m going to get better at this.” I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, but I knew I wanted classes I was excited to go to. I took more philosophy classes, and I started to realize other people had been thinking and wondering about the same weird things as I had. Are we really alive? What does it mean to be a good person? I enjoyed all my classes, but I was always excited about philosophy. Eventually I ended up majoring in it and, as a teacher, every lesson I have ever taught has been built around sitting in a circle, introducing a topic, and thinking about our questions together. Essentially, every lesson has my students and me doing philosophy together. This progressive understanding of teaching and learning would have never occurred to me without JCU.
Q: What was the most valuable learning/lesson from JCU that shaped you personally or professionally?
A: Before John Carroll, “schooling” felt like something that was being done to me, rather than something I was actively doing. Very little of it was helping me make meaning of my life or helping me understand the people I was growing up with. I wasn’t hearing different perspectives. I think that’s what I value most from John Carroll. Students were encouraged to bring their diverse backgrounds and experiences into the classroom. Sitting in a circle, reading philosophical texts, hearing other ideas and being challenged to think and question the dogmas of our own upbringing, that all is infused in my daily work here at the university.
When I mentored high school kids, I challenged them to study something that they wanted to learn about, not to think about what job they wanted. A lot of my work today is based on wonder. For many, starting around third grade, school is where we lose the ability to wonder. My four years at John Carroll reignited my excitement and ability to wonder.
Q: How are you making a human impact in your career?
A: My work is specifically in philosophy for and with children. It started decades ago as a program, but it’s become pedagogy—how we train teachers to teach, regardless of the content. We want to create a more thoughtful, compassionate society. A socially-just democracy where people have the ability to articulate their thinking to others, openly listen, and feel heard. The school I taught in brought together two very different communities: one an affluent, primarily white and Japanese community; the other predominately underserved native Hawaiians. The first time they were coming together was in high school, and it had been creating all sorts of problems for decades. When we create intellectually safe spaces where we can think together about difficult topics, we find deep connections and similarities in our experiences. We form one community in the classroom.
A lot of the movements that are happening right now are because people aren’t being listened to. I was a high school teacher for ten years at a school where more than half of the students received free or reduced lunches. What we found is when students feel intellectually safe, that they are being taken seriously by their peers and teacher, all of sudden you have a more equitable experience where the status quo of school gets flipped. The deck is reshuffled, and the ideas from students who normally aren’t considered now matter because they hold value to our growth as people. Social justice for us is providing a voice and ongoing opportunities to be heard to those who haven’t had the opportunity. My students have become the leaders of change on campus using skills they take back to improve the communities they call home. Philosophical inquiry starts with sitting and thinking about ideas, but then there must be action. That’s just as important to affecting change.
The success we’ve had locally also is having a broader impact. We’ve hosted more than 200 scholars and educators from all over the world, who come to Honolulu to better understand the role philosophy can have in teacher preparation. They’re seeing how it’s working in our classroom, and they’re returning home to advance similar approaches in their own communities.