Claudia Heller de Messer, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts, is known as an advocate for her students and their families. Those who know her share that her impact goes far beyond school doors. Now she also is a 2024 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year.
State Superintendent Dr. Jill Underly presented Heller de Messer with the honor at Parkside in a surprise ceremony attended by the school’s entire student body and staff.
In addition, Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith P. Posley and Milwaukee Board of School Directors President Marva Herndon and District 8 Director Megan O’Halloran attended the event to celebrate Heller de Messer.
“I work with so many amazing teachers. It could have been any of us,” Heller de Messer said.
An ESL specialist, Heller de Messer works with 110 English learners at Parkside who, altogether, speak 19 languages (including English) and live in 10 ZIP codes across Milwaukee. The languages spoken include Burmese, French, Karen, the Somali dialect of Maay Maay, Pashto, Rohingya, Spanish, and Swahili. Many of her students and their families are recent immigrants or refugees, some of whom have been raised in refugee camps.
“I love working with newcomers who are so determined to learn English. It’s just such a rewarding job, too,” Heller de Messer said. “Everybody learns it. It’s just a matter of time. I get to reap some beautiful benefits [from watching their growth].”
For instance, she said, “A lot come with a deer-in-the-headlights look, doing their best just to follow routines. Then they progress to learning enough English to answer ‘yes’ and ‘no’—they’re getting that comprehensible input—and then verbalizing more, and learning their sight words and reading.
“All of a sudden, poof, it’s all coming together. And you have these little chatterboxes,” Heller de Messer said.
She sets up her students for success at school, ensuring they are placed in the correct classes and that parents and teachers can communicate through interpreters. She has a literacy and math tutor work with her students.
Heller de Messer also helps her students and their families outside of the classroom, and on her own time. “I wanted to work more with families, and that’s definitely a huge part of my job now,” she said.
She helps them navigate essential, day-to-day matters such as discerning which mail is junk and which needs attention, understanding leases for housing, making doctor appointments, and getting driver licenses.
“The children tend to be interpreters for their families,” observed Heller de Messer, who is trying to lighten that burden for the students.
Heller de Messer also collected housewares, clothing, and toiletries for Afghan refugees who moved to Milwaukee in 2021, and she has worked with an optometrist who provided free vision screening and glasses for students.
She thinks one of the most important things she does is have a classroom where students speaking many languages can “come together, and there’s laughter in the classroom, and there’s conversation in the classroom. They have two things in common: They’re learning English, and they live in Milwaukee. And they become great friends,” she said.
In addition to her work with students and their families, Heller de Messer holds workshops for Parkside’s teaching staff of 75 and educates them about her students’ cultures, beliefs, and traditions.
Heller de Messer has taught in Milwaukee Public Schools since 1997. Before becoming an ESL teacher at Parkside about 10 years ago, she taught third and fourth grades at Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School, Tippecanoe School for the Arts, and Hayes Bilingual School.
Heller de Messer, who was born in Colombia and moved to the United States with her family, growing up in Rockford, IL., speaks Spanish. She became an ESL teacher because she knew she wanted to continue working with students who speak languages other than English.
Heller de Messer was the second of five surprise 2024 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year announcements. As a state teacher of the year, she will serve on a quarterly state council and attend the State of Education address in Madison in the fall. One of the five honorees will be selected to represent Wisconsin in the National Teacher of the Year program by the Council of Chief State School Officers.