OSHKOSH — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, closing schools across the state, Kaelee Heideman began to miss the students at her school.
Stuck at home, Heideman, a counselor at Carl Traeger Elementary School, thought back to her time as a camp counselor, when she learned to appreciate a handwritten letter in late summer.
So she grabbed a pen and started writing to every student in the school – in her opinion, about 500 letters.
Heideman had put his home address on the letters, hoping that maybe a few students would reply. Instead, she received over 50 letters.
The children’s letters were funny and sweet and included anything and everything imaginable. Some told him they were playing basketball. Others were covered with stickers. One was just a coloring book page. Another was a drawing of Cookie Monster. On one of her favorites, the student wrote “Have a good quarantine” instead of “Sincerely”.
“It was powerful to have that connection again and to remember everything I did with the kids,” Heideman said.
Heideman’s connection to her students is just one reason she was named one of Wisconsin’s five female teachers of the year by the state Department of Public Instruction.
She was surprised by the news on May 4 during a school-wide assembly to celebrate National Teacher Appreciation Week. Heideman thought she was at the meeting just to take pictures. But then public school superintendent Jill Underly announced to students and staff that “Miss Kaelee,” as she is known, is one of the best educators in the state.
“Ms. Heideman does so much to bring your school together as a community,” Underly told students as she encouraged them to honor Heideman.
A few days later, Heideman was still struggling to find words to describe this honor.
“It’s still very surreal to me,” she said.
Her journey to becoming a school counselor was partly inspired by summer camp experiences
When she was growing up, Heideman, a 28-year-old West Bend native, said she wanted to be a teacher. It wasn’t until high school that she started thinking about a career as a school counselor.
Heideman described her middle school experience as “horrible”, adding that she suffered name calling. She credited the help she received from school counselors as a reason she wanted to follow in their footsteps.
“I just really wanted to help people, and I thought that was something that might work for me,” Heideman said.
Heideman earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, taking classes with the idea of being a counselor, at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. After graduating in 2014, she began a career counseling program at UW-Oshkosh.
At UWO, one of her teachers said that she would do very well in an elementary school. After doing an internship in Oshkosh at Read Elementary School, she said she “fell in love with the little ones”. In August 2017, four months before her December graduation, she started her current job at Carl Traeger.
Heideman manages to connect and connect with every student in the school, and said there was never a “typical day”. Whether she is giving classroom counseling sessions, meeting with students one-on-one, responding to crisis situations, or bringing children who need social support together for lunches, she must be adaptable.
Although she initially wanted to work in a middle school, Heideman said she enjoyed the wide range of ages and development she worked with in an elementary school. She loves being able to have silly conversations with kindergarteners who sometimes have no filters and difficult conversations with fifth graders about to enter middle school.
Heideman attributed this ability to be silly and serious as something she learned as a camp counselor. She participated in various camps, including one Wisconsin Association of School Councils leadership camp which she first attended as a delegate in 2006. She has also worked with a camp that brings together separated children during foster care and another for children who have lost a loved one.
Heideman said she uses these camp experiences to create many similar activities in her program.
“I love authenticity and helping kids bring that out,” she said.
One of the most common topics that elementary school kids talk to him about are friendship issues or general socialization skills. Heideman said she often helps children find ways to improve these skills through play. She said that while she makes sure they are supported, children work on their own to solve problems.
“I want them to develop those skills themselves,” Heideman said.
With the virtual school, she has created a remote community
March 2020 was difficult for everyone as the country faced uncertainty due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Heideman said she was “crushed” when the school district announced that students and staff would not be returning for the year.
“They become like our children, not just our students,” she said.
But, in addition to her written correspondence with students, Heideman again looked back to her days as a camp counselor. This time, she got creative with the costumes.
The week after the students were sent home, staff were still coming to school. On St. Patrick’s Day, she wore a shamrock-themed costume, even though the kids weren’t there. Heideman wanted to post something on the school’s Facebook page like “have a clover day” to send a message of support.
She then asked her manager if she could send a photo each day while they were home, thinking it would only be a few weeks.
By the end of the year, she posted 54 – all in a different costume every day and many, including her dog, Milo.
Heideman’s posts quickly became something the community rallied around. Families commented on them to stay in touch. Some have sent him costumes and Milo, turning the dog into a de facto mascot for the school, to the point that kindergartners and first-graders will sometimes say to him, “Say hello to Milo for me.”
“It’s the cutest thing about really having this relationship with the kids,” Heideman said.
She advocates and educates with a staff book club
As passionate as Heideman was about building strong relationships with her children, she also sought to advocate on behalf of students and families and help educate others.
She is a member of the school’s equity team and last year started a social justice book club with the staff.
The club’s 20-30 staff members read a book a month, addressing social justice topics like racism, LGBT+ issues, disabilities, and immigration and documentation status.
Heideman said the response was “incredible” and she quickly offered the book club to people at the school district’s central office.
“It’s cool that people at their own pace are reading them and having these conversations,” she said.
Heideman also volunteers with the girls’ empowerment nonprofit Girls on the Run and coordinated a celebration of diversity at school. She said people from many community organizations would come and talk with the students about their cultures, even bringing pre-COVID food, allowing the students to experience new sights, smells and sounds.
“I want them to understand that the culture isn’t outside of them either,” Heideman said. “We all have a culture. … We ask students to think about their culture and what it means.”
Now, Heideman wants to offer more consistent therapy to students in her school’s Empower program, for students who have difficulty regulating their emotions. Many of these children have suffered trauma of some kind.
Recently, the school and district have been able to offer group therapy support for these students, but Heideman hopes they can benefit from individual therapy and support.
“If we can give them that solid foundation, they can be more successful,” Heideman said.
Beyond that, she wants to assure each of the students at the school that she will give them love and support “no matter what.”
Heideman credited the rest of Carl Traeger’s staff as “incredible” and going above and beyond to help and support every student. But she also hopes her Teacher of the Year award can inspire others to become school counsellors.
“Not all schools have school counselors, and they do a lot,” Heideman said. “The more we can get out to work in the world, the better because the kids need these people.”
And those student letters are something Heideman said she will treasure forever.