Southeast Missouri State University

06/13/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/14/2024 00:59

Two Southeast Missouri Teachers Return to SEMO Just in Time

Andrew and Heather Helle are both two-time SEMO alums. They didn't know each other when they completed their bachelor's degrees at the same time in the early 2000's. When earning their second SEMO degree, they did it side-by-side as a married couple.

Following their first degree, the Helles say they have had meaningful teaching careers. Andrew teaches human anatomy and physiology at Jackson High School, and also sponsors 3D printing club, guitar club, medical club, and is the sponsor and coach for chess club, whose freshman won the state championship last year. Heather has been teaching elementary and middle school music at Scott City for 24 years. Her students put on community concerts, and her choir performs for the Southeast Cancer Center, the Missouri Veteran's home, and the Villas of Jackson.

"We try to use music to pour into people's lives who really need it," Heather said. "It's so cool to see the kids get excited about it." After a lesson learning an African song with her second-grade class, Heather was inspired to start a school and community-wide fundraiser for The Water Project. The Water Project is a non-profit organization that raises money for African communities without access to clean water.

"I'm big on studying the culture of where the songs come from with my students," Heather said. "After discovering that schools in Kenya don't always have access to clean water, my students asked if they could do something about it. The school board approved us joining The Water Project and the whole school has raised nearly twenty percent of the costs to build a well at a school in Kenya."

As the Helles got closer to retirement, they started looking for ways to maximize their retirement income. "We could move to St. Louis for a few years to make more money, but our communities are so supportive. We have packed concerts. I wouldn't want to go out that way," Heather said.

"We knew that if we wanted to get a better retirement that now was the time to return to school," said Andrew.

So, two years ago, they decided to return to their alma mater for their master's degree in Teacher Leadership.

The Helles feel Missouri has one of the best retirement plans in the country for teachers. Retirement income is based on your best three-year's salary, but many schools have a capped salary schedule based on two things-years spent teaching and education. Andrew and Heather, having taught for 23 and 24 years, respectively, knew that if they wanted to maximize their retirement, they needed to get their master's degrees. Between teaching full-time, working with clubs, and travelling for concerts, they weren't sure they could make it work.

The Helles were grateful for Dr. Margaret Noe, from SEMO's Department of Leadership, Middle, and Secondary education.

"Dr. Noe is amazing," said Heather. "She worked closely with us to make sure that we took our hardest classes over the summer so we could focus outside of the school year. We really thrust ourselves into the program, and that made all the difference."

Andrew said taking all their classes side-by-side also really helped. Plus, they were able to apply what they were learning to innumerable scenarios from decades of teaching.

Since it only required a couple extra classes, they also added a certificate in trauma resiliency to their plan. Both have seen their fair share of struggling students.

"We decided it would probably be smart to have some reasonable education on how to help struggling kids. It will be an incredible tool to tuck into our belts, and we highly recommend the trauma and resiliency certificate," said Heather.

Being only four and five years from retirement age, some might think it's an odd time to go back to college, but the Helles agree that they're grateful for waiting as long as they did, and that their master's degrees have given them a whole new perspective on the school system, beyond their own classrooms.

Andrew admits they had discussed a variety of online programs from schools other than SEMO.

"We had heard from others that we could choose an easier program online somewhere else. We heard that SEMO might not be easiest, but that we'd learn a lot more."

"There were several reasons we came back to SEMO. It was our alma mater; it was home," Heather said. "And we got a real degree, not just a paper."

The couple graduated with their master's degrees in teacher leadership in May 2024.

Both Andrew and Heather were awarded the Educational Leadership Award, nominated by Dr. Noe. Heather is also the 2024 Southeast Missouri Regional Teacher of the Year, and a finalist for the 2024 Missouri Teacher of the Year, one of only seven finalists in the state.

The Helles are pleased their SEMO legacy won't end with them. Their oldest son, Sam, is a third-year music education major at SEMO. Their daughter, Chloe, will attend Southeast as a freshman this fall, considering a degree in conservation.