OSHKOSH – When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, shuttering schools across the state, Kaelee Heideman started 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 at the end of the summer.
So she grabbed a pen and began to write to every student in the school — by her guess, about 500 letters.
Heideman had put her home address on the letters, with the hope that maybe a few students would write back. Instead, she got more than 50 letters.
The kids’ letters were funny and sweet and included anything and everything imaginable. Some told her they were playing basketball. Others were covered in stickers. One was just a coloring book page. Another was a drawing of Cookie Monster. On one of her favorites of hers, the student wrote, “Have a great quarantine,” instead of “Sincerely.”
“It was powerful to have that connection again and remind me of all the things I’ve done with the kids,” Heideman said.
Heideman’s connection with her students is just one of the reasons why she was named one of five Wisconsin Teachers of the Year by the state Department of Public Instruction.
She was surprised with the news May 4 during a school-wide assembly to celebrate National Teacher Appreciation Week. Heideman thought she was at the assembly just to take pictures. But then state school superintendent Jill Underly announced to the students and staff that “Miss Kaelee,” as she’s known, is one of the best educators in the state.
“Ms. Heideman does so much to bring your school together as a community,” Underly said to the students as she led them in cheers to honor Heideman.
Days later, Heideman was still struggling to find words to describe the honor.
“It’s still very surreal to me,” she said.
Her path to become a school counselor was partly inspired by summer-camp experiences
When she was growing up, Heideman, a 28-year-old Big Bend native, said she wanted to be a teacher. It wasn’t until high school that she started to think about a career as a school counselor.
Heideman described her middle-school experience as “horrible,” adding she experienced some 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 thought this is something that could be a good fit for me,” Heideman said.
Heideman got 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 started a professional counseling program at UW-Oshkosh.
At UWO, one of her professors said she would be a really good fit at an elementary school. After she did a practicum 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 began her current job at Carl Traeger.
Heideman gets to build connections and relationships with every student in the school, and said there’s never a “typical day.” Whether she’s giving classroom counseling sessions, meeting with students one-on-one, responding to crisis situations or bringing kids who need social support together for lunches, she has to be adaptable.
Despite initially wanting to work in a middle school, Heideman said she enjoys the large spectrum of ages and development she gets to work with in an elementary school. She likes being able to have silly conversations with kindergarteners who sometimes have no filter and tough conversations with fifth-graders about to enter middle school.
Heideman credited that ability to be silly and serious as something she learned as a camp counselor. She went to a variety of camps, including a Wisconsin Association of School Councils leadership camp she first attended as a delegate in 2006. She’s also worked with one camp that reunites kids separated during foster care and another for children who have lost a loved one.
Heideman said she uses those experiences from camp to create a lot of similar activities as part of her curriculum.
“I love the authenticity and helping kids bring that out,” she said.
One of the more common topics the elementary kids talk with her about are friendship problems or general socialization skills. Heideman said she often helps find ways for kids to improve those skills through play. She said that, though she makes sure they’re supported, the kids work on their own to solve problems.
“I want them to develop those skills themselves,” Heideman said.
With virtual school, she created community from a distance
March 2020 was hard for everyone as the country faced uncertainty due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Heideman said she was “crushed” when the school district announced students and staff weren’t coming back for the year.
“They become like our kids, not just our students,” she said.
But, in addition to her written correspondences with students, Heideman again turned to her days as a camp counselor. This time, she got creative with costumes.
The week after the students were sent home, staff were still coming in to the school. On St. Patrick’s Day, she dressed in 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 shamrockin’ day” to send a supportive message.
She then asked her principal if she could send a picture each day while they were at home, thinking it would be just a couple weeks.
By the end of the year, she posted 54 — all in a different costume each day and many including her dog, Milo.
Heideman’s posts quickly became something the community rallied around. Families would comment on them to stay in touch. Some sent her de ella and Milo costumes, turning the dog into a de facto mascot for the school, to the point where kindergarteners and first-graders sometimes will tell her, “Say hi to Milo for me.”
“It’s the cutest thing to really have that relationship with the kids,” Heideman said.
She Advocating and educating with a staff book club
As passionate as Heideman is about building solid relationships with her kids, she has also been looking to advocate for students and families and helping educate others.
She’s a member of the school’s equity team and, last year, she started a social justice book club with the staff.
The 20-30 staff members in the club read one book a month, tackling social-justice topics like racism, LGBT+ issues, disabilities and immigration and documentation status.
Heideman said the response was “amazing” and she soon offered the book club to people in the school district’s central office.
“It’s cool that people in their own time are reading them and having those conversations,” she said.
Heideman also volunteers with the nonprofit girls empowerment organization Girls on the Run and coordinated a diversity celebration at the school. She said people from many community organizations would come in and talk with students about their cultures, even bringing in food pre-COVID, allowing students to experience new sights, smells and sounds.
“I want them to understand culture isn’t outside of them either,” Heideman said. “We all have a culture. … We have the students reflect on what their culture is and what does that mean.”
Now, Heideman wants to offer therapy more consistently to students in her school’s Empower program, for students who have difficulty regulating their emotions. Many of those children have experienced trauma of some sort.
Recently, the school and district were able to offer group therapy support for those students, but Heideman hopes they can get individual therapy and support.
“If we can give them that solid foundation, they can be more successful,” Heideman said.
Beyond that, she wants to ensure each of the school’s students that she’ll give them love and support “no matter what.”
Heideman credited the rest of the Carl Traeger staff as being “incredible” and going above and beyond to help and support every student. But she also hopes her award from Ella as a teacher of the year can inspire others to become school counselors.
“Not every school has school counselors and they do a lot,” Heideman said. “The more we can get out working in the world, the better it is because kids need those people.”
And those letters from students are something Heideman said she will keep forever.
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of the story, Kaelee Heideman’s hometown was incorrect.
Contact Bremen Keasey at 920-570-5614 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Keasinho.