A Passion for Teaching

Growth in Teaching Skills, Knowledge Lead Teacher of the Year Honors for Helt

As she recalls it, Michelle Helt was in her second year teaching when 2004 Nebraska Teacher of the Year Diane Woodford addressed Helt and the South Sioux City staff.

Woodford spoke of opportunities and possibilities that come with the state’s highest education honor. She urged others to consider the Teacher of the Year process. Helt, however, knew she was still learning her craft and profession.

“When you’re young, you think ‘no way, there is no way I would put myself out there,’” said Helt.

Flash forward 14 years. The 2018 Nebraska Teacher of the Year is … Michelle Helt.

“It’s funny how your life changes and you grow as a professional,” she said a week after the announcement.

Helt has certainly grown professionally. She has become a leader in her grade level, her building and her district. Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt and other dignitaries knocked on her classroom door in early October to reveal her selection.

She will be feted at a luncheon at NSEA Headquarters on Nov. 8. Also to be honored are finalists Rachel Burns, Omaha Northwest High, and Joni Ebel, Columbus Middle School.

All are NSEA members.

Classroom ‘Soul’

Helt received rave reviews for her work with third graders at South Sioux City’s Cardinal Elementary School.

Jennifer Kennelly taught with Helt and served on the Professional Learning Community led by Helt.

“In her classroom, you will find rigor, but you will also find soul,” wrote Kennelly in a letter of recommendation. “Mrs. Helt knows that while her students may be engulfed in the march toward higher test scores, they are simultaneously engaged in something of crucial importance: childhood. It is fun to be in Mrs. Helt’s class, and that is a result of her tremendous effort to wed engagement and content.”

Cardinal Elementary Principal Dan Swatek gave Helt glowing grades in his letter.

“In my 16 years of being in education in various roles, I have never seen another teacher put that much passion and energy into every lesson, every day for every student.”

Never Wavered

Helt remembers her initial encounter with the teaching side of the classroom – she was a fourth-grader. She found that as a peer tutor she loved the feeling of helping others be successful. She has never wavered on her goal of wanting to teach.

“I’ve said to my husband many times, ‘I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t teach.’

“It’s a passion,” she said. “In my free time I enjoy professional reading, creating something for school, or trying to come up with a different way of presenting a lesson. That’s what I do, that’s part of who I am.”

Third grade is the perfect fit for Helt.

“I love this age because they are so curious. They still want to learn and they enjoy the interaction with teachers and they love school. On the other hand, they’re a little bit independent. I love that they love school, and I hope that I can help them carry that on.”

The ‘Driving Force’

Helt said her classroom is “energetic and purposeful,” driven largely by standards.

“Gone are the days that I can say ‘I think I’ll do this unit because I think it will be fun,’” she said.

She works to make sure her students understand the ‘why’ behind those standards.

“When I first started teaching, I honestly don’t even know if I could have told you what the standards were,” said Helt. “Sixteen years ago, it wasn’t as big of a push. Now it is literally the driving force behind everything I do.”

For students to understand the “why” behind standards, she connects lessons with real life. Consider this lesson on rounding.

“I use the example that I’m going to the grocery store and I only have $40 in cash, I didn’t bring my purse, and I’ve got to make sure I have enough money to pay for everything,” she said. “So, I’m going to round it and I try to make it very real life for them. I feel like you can get kids to really try and become invested if they know there is a reason behind it.

“I try to bring it down to their level and then relate it to as they get older. I think it becomes much more meaningful.”

Bells and Whistles

A life-long and avid reader, Helt loves teaching reading. In recent years, she has become passionate about teaching math.

“I think it is because there are so many hands-on things we can do and so many applications to real life,” she said.

Helt used a math example to illustrate her favorite part of being a teacher.

“I love it when you can make that connection for kids, and you see them go ‘OH!’ and they finally get it.

“For example, place values – some kids just pick it up right away. But when we get to February there will be three or four kids that will go ‘I get it now!’” she said. “And it’s ‘Yes!’ What I’ve been working on since August – you finally get it!”

Helt’s committed approach and high expectations make her classroom a success. She says she pulls out “all the bells and whistles” when needed.

“My expectation is that you learn everything, all these standards by the end of third grade,” she said. “So, if you don’t have them now, don’t worry, we’re going to keep coming back to it. By the end of third grade, our goal is that you will know these standards.”

Standards aside, teaching is an art.

“It’s kind of like a big puzzle, a constantly changing puzzle. There are parts of it that are always staying the same. And for me, that part is the age level. I know what to expect out of the third graders. They’re still curious, they still love school. I like that piece of it, but I like that ever-changing piece as well.”

Asset or Liability

Speaking of standards, Helt said she agrees that teachers and students need to be held accountable. Yet she foresees a problem with a bill in the Legislature that would require teachers to flunk third grade students who are not reading at grade level by the end of the year.

She explains herself through the philosophy of a former administrator.

“He was talking about testing in general and said that ‘when we start relying solely on test scores, we start to see students as a liability instead of an asset,’” said Helt.

“There has to be some leeway because kids are not all the same. Think about it: some kids have pre-school, some do not. Some kids are speaking English from the day they are born, other kids are not,” she said. “So I have a hard time putting a deadline on something like that.”

A Team Effort

Helt was hesitant, but her principal encouraged her to apply for Teacher of the Year consideration.

“I just do what so many other teachers do. So it’s hard to seek any sort of recognition for that,” she said.

“My colleagues have been very supportive. We are all together as a team, and as I’ve said it many times: I learn something new from everyone I work with – and on a daily basis,” she said.

“I feel like it is an honor for our entire school and the district because we have such great things going on here.”