Every day is exciting when you’re helping elementary students express their creativity, but Thursday was more exciting that usual for Jefferson art teacher Chelsea Miller, who was honored in a surprise reception naming her Wisconsin Elementary Teacher of the Year.
The ceremony took place at Jefferson High School, with the honors being presented by State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor.
“The love you are showing is outstanding,” Stanford Taylor told the students. “It shows that this honor is so deserved.”
Out of more than 60,000 educators statewide, being named Wisconsin Teacher of the Year is something extraordinary, Stanford Taylor said. Recipients go beyond excellence in their subject area to provide opportunity for all, working toward equity for diverse students with diverse needs.
As part of the honor, the educator will receive $3,000 from the Herb Kohl Education Foundation.
Sun Prairie resident Miller, who teaches art at the School District of Jefferson’s Sullivan and West elementary schools, said she was honored and humbled by the award.
Choked up and with tears in her eyes, the honoree thanked the students, staff and community for all of their support, saying, “We couldn’t do the things we do without you.”
Unbeknownst to the honoree, some of Miller’s biggest supporters came out for the ceremony and at this point, they popped out from behind the curtain to join her on stage.
That included her mom and dad Tina and James Liebetrau, her husband Matt Miller and children Hadley, 3, and Hudson, 1 ½, along with her teaching mentor, Tish Kopish.
An educator in the School District of Jefferson since 2010, Miller began her career teaching at the middle school level in the Kettle Moraine School District and then spent two years in Platteville coaching cheerleading and working as a one-on-one paraprofessional for a little girl with Down’s Syndrome.
In 2010, she started as a part-time art teacher at Sullivan Elementary School. In 2011, her position was expanded to include West Elementary School, making it full time.
In the years since, Miller has had a tremendous impact on area students, not just in the classroom, but also through summer school enrichment courses and several innovative clubs that have touched people throughout the district and beyond.
Miller said she always wanted to become a teacher. After graduating from Janesville Craig High School, Miller went on to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, becoming certified to teach art “birth to 21.”
Miller now spends two-thirds of her time at West and one-third at Sullivan. Along with teaching elementary art at all levels, she also coordinates Stained Glass Club, Crochet Club and Construction Club, and is working on starting a new Mosaic Club.
In addition, she coordinates numerous school activities, such as school art nights and Veterans’ Day assemblies, and she took a lead role in establishing nine Little Free Libraries throughout the area to provide people in the rural areas of the district with better access to books.
Miller is currently working on her master’s degree through the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and set to finish December 2020.
Miller’s two principals, Mike Howard at West and Nick Skretta at Sullivan, had the highest of praise for Miller, praise which Miller reflected right back, said she is so pleased to be working at the Jefferson schools, with such a wonderful staff and supportive administration.
“Mr. Howard said to me the other day, ‘How cool is it that we have a Stained Glass Club?’” Miller related. “But really, how cool is it that I have administrators who saw this as an opportunity and instead of shutting the idea down, did everything they could to make it happen?”
“I have never worked with better leaders,” Miller said of the two principals and Jefferson school district Superintendent Mark Rollefson.
She also recognized the high level of support she gets from community members, not just in terms of monetary contributions but also incredible levels of volunteer effort.
Without community volunteers like Pat Hutson, who puts in many hours of hands-on time helping students who are learning crocheting and stained glass art, Miller said she could not possibly offer the kind of programs she does now.
Miller said she is so honored to be able to represent art education in Wisconsin.
Because art is not defined as a “core subject,” it can get short shrift as school budgets are tightened. In some districts, art teachers are seen as little more than “glorified babysitters,” she said.
Miller said art classes teach students to see the world in different ways and to take an active part in it. They learn problem-solving through hands-on activities and guided questioning.
Art is a great way to reach people who might be struggling in one way or another. Miller said she’s committed to modifying her assignments to better reach students who are English Language Learners, who have cognitive or other disabilities, or who have emotional behavior challenges.
Understanding that some families are struggling just to meet basic needs, Miller provides snacks at her club activities and has provided students with season-appropriate shoes. She has also made special transportation arrangements to allow students to participate in enrichment activities.
When a teacher believes in a student and makes accommodations to help them succeed, Miller said they tend to rise to the occasion.
For example, when she was coaching cheerleading in another district, she granted a spot on the squad for a student who was failing and was court-ordered to be in school. Miller made a deal with the student: she could stay if she brought her grades up, and if she earned straight A’s, the teacher offered to personally purchase the student a new wardrobe for her to keep, since her parents could not afford to. The student met that challenge and excelled.
“Imagine my happiness when she handed me her report card with straight A’s,” Miller said. “It was some of the best money I ever spent.” She noted that the student since has graduated from nursing school and is fulfilling an important need in her community.
She also fosters students’ generosity, as her clubs make items for others, not themselves.
The Stained Glass Club’s creations stained-glass creations are presented to supporters in the community, while the Crochet Club makes things like lap blankets to benefit Rainbow Hospice Care, sleeping pads for animals in the Humane Society of Jefferson County shelter, and hats for newborns.
“It really gets kids thinking about others in the community and what they need,” Miller said.
All in all, Miller said, she just is so enthused to be part of the education community.
“I see a lot of heart in education today,” Miller said. “The teachers that remain are really in it for the right reasons. My coworkers are a wonderful wealth of knowledge and support. With the political climate, high-stakes testing and unaddressed mental health issues, it’s a challenging time to be a teacher.”
However, she said, despite those drawbacks and stressors, the field remains deeply rewarding.
“Teachers are in a position to change lives,” she said. “We can utilize our relationship and knowledge to help all students succeed.”
Voicing her thanks, Stanford Taylor thanked the students for their wonderful work and left them with a message for the future.
“Teachers have the ability to positively touch the lives of students,” she said. “Students, think about this excellent example of the teacher before you.” In the future, the DPI head urged them to think about a career in education so they could pass on this incredible energy and positively touch lives in turn.
“Maybe some day I’ll be in a room just like this one, presenting you with an award” she concluded.