Maricopa Wells Middle School principal Thad Miller sets a simple yet challenging goal for his teachers and students.
“One of the lessons I share with the kids every day, and we talk about throughout the year, is the whole point of life, and that is to get better every day,” Miller said. “Are you better today than you were yesterday? Are you better this week than last week?”
“It’s not just the kids, but the adults, too,” Miller said. “I can honestly say that my staff and educators in general, every day, they want to get better. If there’s something they can improve on, they do it. They want to get better every day, and it’s been great to see.”
Miller has been the principal at Maricopa Wells for five years and has been an educator with the Maricopa Unified School District for 25 years.
He has taught or overseen the education of many adults in Maricopa, and now their kids’ education is his chief responsibility.
It’s a safe assumption that some events at the school tend to resemble family reunions when Miller is involved.
“It’s fun. I enjoy it,” Miller said. “That’s the biggest success for me, building relationships and having the students come back and seeing the successes they’re having in life.”
A Maricopan through and through
Miller, 54, is what you might call old-school Maricopa. He’s lived in Maricopa 49 years and attended Maricopa High School when it was a K-12 school.
“My family all moved out here when I was 5, which was in the late ‘70s,” Miller said. “I started kindergarten in Maricopa. It was a little different back then. It’s fun to think back to those days and some of the people I went to school with. The first name that comes to mind is Robert Miguel, the chairman of the Ak-Chin Indian Community. I went from kindergarten to high school with Robert.”
When Miller’s family moved to Maricopa, it was not yet a city. It’s difficult to nail down a population for that point in time, but it couldn’t have been that many people. In 2000, the population was a tick over 1,000 people.
“When I attended, it was about 700 kids K-12,” he said.
“We had a graduating class of 63 kids.” The graduating class at Maricopa High School in 2022 was nearly 700. And Miller is constantly reminded of the area’s growth every time he arrives at school.
“It’s fun sometimes to think about it,” Miller said. “There are now 900 kids at Maricopa Wells Middle School alone.”
Miller has observed the growth in Maricopa in many ways.
“We were a small town, and we’re growing into a bigger town,” Miller said. “I live here in Maricopa. I built my own house settling out in the farming area. I’ve raised seven kids. They’ve all attended MUSD schools.”
Changes all around
Maricopa is growing at a significant rate; the City estimates about 6,000 people move here each year. Those changes are enough to be overwhelming. But technology has and will continue to affect education in many ways.
When Miller started his career as a teacher in 1997, the internet was in its infancy. Social media didn’t exist.
“If you look at the whole situation with technology, it can be a blessing for education,” Miller said. “Because when you look at the field from K-12 into higher education, technology is going to play a role. You can’t stop it. You have to embrace it.”
Miller said an understanding of technology and the effects it has on kids — and everyone else for that matter — helps inform the strategies used by teachers to reach students. People have shorter attention spans.
“I think the biggest thing for educators now is adjusting to the generations we have who have been raised in technology. Their abilities are much more advanced than what we were growing up,” Miller said. “So, the strategies and the abilities of our teachers have increased with an understanding of instant gratification and how important it is to kids now, whether online or with games.
“The teachers have had to step up their game and I’m proud to say they have. Not only are we using an online curriculum, but there are different strategies they use in the classroom to keep the kids’ attention. Those things are key and they’re working.”
The challenges for teachers extend beyond the kids to social media. It used to be that parents’ criticisms and concerns would come to the forefront a few times a year. Now, a teacher’s strategies and methods are questioned on Facebook almost nightly.
Miller said his teachers take the running critiques in stride and try to learn from them whenever possible.
“There’s always been parent participation,” Miller said. “I think probably when you look at technology and the blessing it is for education, sometimes it kind of opens things up for real-time opinions. I’m not going to say it’s all bad because it isn’t. There are a lot of positives, too.”
While teachers work long hours, sometimes taking their work home with them, the changes are here to stay and they understand it, Miller explained.
“They don’t know what’s going to be on social media,” Miller said. “It could be positive. It could be not-so-positive, and teachers deal with this on a daily basis. I know what the teachers are doing, and I know the work they put in and the passion they have. But there are not too many professions that have to deal with that daily.
“It’s part of life, positive and negative, but our educators come back the next day,” he added. “And that’s one thing I’m proud of; they will come back every day, doing the same job, knowing there are different opinions, and it’s OK to have different opinions.”
Forward thinking saves the day
Maricopa Unified School District has a progressive view on computers and their use in the classroom.
In 2019, before anyone knew COVID-19 was lurking, MUSD committed to ensuring each student had access to a laptop computer.
“You talk about preparing for what was coming,” Miller said. “We really were prepared for that. We had laptops for the kids, whether they were in person or at home. It was such a key to have that, and through several community partnerships, we’re able to do that one-to-one, and I’m proud to say it was great for our district.
“There are a lot of districts doing it now,” he noted. “But MUSD started this before COVID, and we were ahead of the game when it came to that whole technology part of COVID.”
While many school systems across the country were trying to procure laptops during the pandemic and supply chain shortages, Maricopa had the equipment it needed to educate the city’s children.
The only challenge that remained was one of proximity. Teachers had to relate to and educate their students virtually.
“They had to adjust,” Miller said. “But by focusing on keeping students’ attention, and with some of those strategies they used in the classroom, they figured out how to expand those practices to online and keep kids’ attention at home while they were teaching from the classroom or their home was definitely a challenge.”
The result was that when kids came back to in-person learning, the student body was relatively up to date, according to Miller.
“For the most part, they’ve come through with flying colors,” he said. “There are still struggles, but the kids are doing well, and particularly the staff, they still have that student-first attitude and, and yes, some of those adjustments had to be made online, but the staff didn’t give up.
“They just did it. I’m so proud of that.”
MUSD’s decision to move forward with technology also is an indicator of the future.
“We’re getting back to regular after COVID, but through those three years of COVID, if there’s any positive, the technology that was used has prepared us for what we’re doing now,” Miller said.
A personal touch
Technology and computers will always be an important part of the educational process, but for Miller, it will never surpass the importance of personal relationships built with past students and members of the community.
“I see it every year as the kids graduate from high school,” Miller said. “It’s always fun for us regardless of whether those kids came from Maricopa Wells or Desert Wind to look and see our kids, the scholarships they’re achieving, and to see where they’re headed from high school.”
Miller is proud of past students’ education and even more so when they entrust their own children’s education to him.
“And that’s the biggest thing for me,” he said. “I love it when I see the kids end up successful like that. But I have kids I taught in middle school who are now adults, and their kids are coming through our school.
“That’s awesome. For me, that’s how those positive relationships are built, having the kids come back, bringing their kids back to the same school they went to.”
“I’m rooting for all the kids, regardless of what school they go to,” Miller said. “To see them turn into successful high school students and then adults, makes all the effort worthwhile.”
This content was first published in the July edition of InMaricopa magazine.