Mercer County Senior High School English teacher Erin Milburn can teach the science-lover Shakespeare, the math mind Melville and classics literature connoisseur Capote.
Trumpet player Savanna Beauchamp Barnett calls her “by far the most brilliant person I have ever met.”
Computer wiz Caleb Sheehan thanks her for teaching him “a number of literary skills and so many life lessons.” Future surgeon and tennis champ Alli Grant reveres her for inspiring students “to be better individuals and impact the world around them.”
Those seniors are only three of the seven Rising Stars who view Milburn as the most influential employee at their school. Her name appeared next to the title more than any other teacher at any other school participating in the Rising Star program.
Milburn, who has been teaching for 14 years, humbly credits her enthusiasm for her subject and her students for allowing her to resonate with a diverse range of kids.
“I have the opportunity to do what I love to do, what I live to do, every day,” she said. “It’s a blessing to me, and I’m sure that’s what shows through to the kids.”
At MCSHS, Milburn teaches two of the toughest English classes, AP literature and AP language. But she makes the courses enjoyable and enlightening for students by highlighting how universal themes of literature transcend time — even for teenagers.
She said this tactic works particularly well when teaching one of her favorite and one of literature’s most challenging works, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
“Students relate to Hamlet,” she said. “I think they understand his angst. A lot of them have experienced divorce and had to live in blended families.”
Students who can’t relate to Hamlet on that level often find him more accessible when Milburn shows “The Lion King,” Disney’s animated adaptation of the classic tale.
But other texts Milburn teaches prove more difficult for students to understand in the context of their Mercer County worlds.
While studying novels such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Milburn said she strives to create an environment where students can explore philosophies like nihilism without feeling the discussion is challenging their personal value system.
“I believe that part of my job is to serve as a bridge from the lovely, privileged environment that these children were blessed to be raised in and the real world,” she said. “They feel comfortable talking to each other about these things, and that’s a huge step in talking about them.”
Those discussions often function as the basis for numerous writing assignments Milburn’s students complete in preparation for the end-of-the-year AP tests. Milburn said she carefully reads and quickly returns these assignments, so her students can benefit from her feedback.
“I read their writing; I know their writing, and I challenge them to improve the way they express themselves,” she said.
Helping students become better writers, readers and thinkers requires full dedication from Milburn, who works early and late grading papers and planning lessons.
But she said the hard work is worth it every time a student, who never thought he or she was a good writer, passes an AP test, which more than half of her students did last year.
“I love these young minds,” Milburn said. “I love the way they think. I love watching a kid get a new concept. I love seeing them discover that the world is so much bigger than they thought.”
But watching her students leave to enter that larger world is always bittersweet for Milburn, and she chokes up at the thought of bidding farewell to the 2011 graduates, many of whom she’s taught two years in a row.
“It’s excruciating for me to let them go,” she said. “Every year it’s like saying goodbye to my own children. They have all brought something special to my life, and I’ll miss them when they’re gone.”