Kimberly Hellerich

Grade 11 English Teacher

Two defining moments in high school helped Dr. Kimberly Hellerich decide to go into teaching. Neither of those moments were happy. Both of them involved painful loss. The first moment involved a friend she made at camp who died in a car accident the summer before Hellerich’s freshman year.

“It was pretty traumatizing,” Hellerich, an 11th grade English teacher at East Windsor High School, recalled. “I never remembered losing someone my age and I really struggled with that.”

She said her struggle showed up in her ninth grade English class during a lesson on poetry.

“I can’t remember the exact poem,” Hellerich said, “it was something happy, go lucky but I just kept reading death and negativity into everything.”

Her classmates, unaware of her internal pain, laughed at her misreading of the poem. And so did her teacher. It’s something she never forgets.

The second moment was when a teacher carelessly expressed a loss of faith in Hellerich’s ability to learn during her junior year.

“I’m a language person,” she said. “I worked really hard [in math] because I knew it was really hard for me.”

Hellerich said she’d stepped into the central office area of her high school math department suite when she overheard her teacher tell another teacher: “Kim is not going to amount to anything in life.”

She walked into her teacher’s office, looked her in the eye and said, “Here is my work.”

Hellerich didn’t immediately have her sights set on being an educator when she went off to college. She didn’t set out to prove anyone wrong. In fact, she started off wanting to be a lawyer. But once she decided education was her passion there was no turning back for her.

Though one teacher had laughed at her and another had written her off, Hellerich had fallen in love with the profession while student-teaching in the topsy turvy world of middle school. 

“It’s just the worst time in everybody’s life because it’s so tumultuous,” she said of middle school. “But entering a classroom  it felt like that was my home.” 

She spent a decade teaching in the middle grades before completing her sixth year degree in educational leadership and becoming an assistant middle school principal. After three years as an assistant principal, she ascended to the position of principal at East Windsor Middle School where she stayed for eight years. During her last year as principal she decided to pursue a doctorate in a three-year accelerated program at New England College. That decision ultimately led her back to the classroom, specifically to teach first 9th grade and now 11th grade English at East Windsor High School.

Hellerich decided early in her teaching career that she would be the teacher that she never had. She wouldn’t pretend she knew it all because she’s an adult. She wanted to know what her students thought. She let their feedback influence how she taught. She wanted to know if she was giving them what they needed to succeed. She wanted her students to trust her in a way that she hadn’t trusted her own teachers. 

Returning to the classroom, honestly, was the best thing I could have done for myself. Not just for my research study but for me to understand what’s truly important.

Kimberly Hellerich

“For me, my take is, having an authentic, trust-based relationship is so important for not only K-12 but for the graduate level, K-20,” added Hellerich, who said she sees herself ultimately teaching at the collegiate level and helping to shape future teachers and school building leaders. “I think that’s what all learners need to have with instructors and teachers." 

Staff, parents and students in East Windsor knew her as a principal but none of them had seen her teach when she first returned to the classroom. Hellerich was confident in her teaching skills, but she prepared for skepticism. She worked to build trust and found support that she said she wasn’t certain she could have gotten anywhere else but in East Windsor. She also found new learning and research partners in her students.

She and nine of her students created a student-led participatory action research project where they studied the effectiveness of multiple teaching strategies over six months. They collected and analyzed both quantitative and qualitative data that ultimately culminated in them co-authoring a self-published paper with Hellerich.

Before the global pandemic closed schools last year, the students got to present their research and recommendations to the entire East Windsor High School staff. Hellerich said she did nothing more than introduce them, and then stood back like a proud parent and watched them knock the staff’s socks off.

“I knew with the strong relationship and scaffolded support that I provided them that they had the competency to reach that higher level of expectation,” she said. “They actually surpassed my expectations. At the end of the whole presentation I choked up.”

“I’ve known these students since most of them were 10,” she added. “For them to now stand in front of their teachers and say, ‘Here’s what I found to be very successful for our group of students,’ it was amazing.”

Hellerich said she jumped at the chance to teach 11th grade English last year when another teacher retired partly because she knew she’d get to work with these same students again. Students who often let her know that they appreciate her willingness to listen to what they have to say and respect their feedback enough to incorporate it in how she teaches. They also appreciate her willingness to be vulnerable with them.

I’m glad my students have not had the same experiences I had. I’m glad the students who have had me are getting something they need based on what they need, not based on what I think as the adult.

Kimberly Hellerich