When Heather Trees speaks about being a teacher, her smile grows wider and her voice fills with passion.
“It’s such a gift to have these students in front of you every day,” Trees said. “So you want to use that gift wisely.”
As a former journalist and avid reader, Trees takes pride in understanding and learning about all sides of a story. She sees the headlines about the difficulties facing educators these days, but remains inspired and hopeful because of the profound impact that teachers can have on their students’ lives.
“No one becomes a teacher for any other reason than they love kids, they love to teach them things, and they want to help them become better human beings,” Trees said. “I find it endlessly fascinating and rewarding. No matter how hard a day I have, I am so happy that this is my job.”
Trees is an English teacher at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque, Iowa. She can’t imagine doing anything else. But this is not where the Chicago native envisioned she’d end up after graduating with a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.
“I was going to take on the world,” Trees said, laughing.
Trees began her career as a television news reporter, covering earthquakes, fires, elections, and everything in between. She moved up to being a lead anchor for a station in California, delivering the news three times each evening to her TV audience.
Having a purpose in life
A few years later, though, she was living in Iowa as a stay-at-home mother who watched the news from her couch instead of being a part of it. She had no regrets about leaving journalism to devote her time to her three children, but she felt something missing in her life. She just didn’t know what that was.
“When my youngest started school, our librarian was in a bad accident and I offered to help as a volunteer knowing nothing about it,” Trees said. “I ended up loving being in the library.”
After joining the elementary school’s staff as a part-time librarian, Trees became hooked on education and went back to college to embark on a second career as a teacher. She had found what she had been missing.
“It’s so important in life to have a purpose,” Trees said. “I loved being a librarian and getting books into kids’ hands that they could connect with and help them become readers. But when I saw what teachers were doing, I saw how much bigger of a difference you could make in the lives of students. At every stage of my life, I’ve wanted to widen my circle of influence and make more of a difference.”
Trees began as a sixth-grade teacher at Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School in Dubuque, Iowa, where she taught students she had previously interacted with during her four years as an elementary librarian. She then moved on to her current role at Wahlert Catholic High School, which is connected with Mazzuchelli as part of Holy Family Catholic Schools.
This spring, Wahlert Catholic’s graduating class will include a group of seniors who Trees met when they were kindergartners and Trees was a first-year librarian.
“Those students are the reason I’m here,” said Trees, whose 18-year-old daughter is among them. “It’s been such a privilege to be a part of their life and their learning journey.”
‘Each one of them is going to know that I care’
At the start of this past school year, Trees wrote down her top personal goals to focus on as a teacher and keeps the list on her desk as a daily reminder:
- Connect with all my students.
- Help them feel seen and heard.
- Be present in conversations and interactions.
“It’s not like you form an immediate connection with every student, but if you really see them you can help them become a better student and a better person,” Trees said. “You get to understand each other that way. I really don’t think you can get to know your students too much.”
Trees, an enthusiastic advocate for mentoring, treasures her weekly one-on-one time with students through the school’s mentoring program with Summit Learning, an offering of Gradient Learning.
“Mentoring is so beautiful,” she said. “It’s a four-year experience of walking alongside a student from their freshman to senior year. It’s life-changing for both of us.”
Trees uses individual time with students to help them find their passions and develop a curiosity about the world around them. It’s during these interactions where Trees’ journalism background comes most handy.
“Everyone has a story and I try to learn that story, respect it, and honor it,” Trees said. “I also share my story with them. As a journalist, I feel like the best work I did was when I was able to share the humanity of another person and that’s what I try to bring out in each of my students. I’m a super curious person and ask a lot of questions, so of course that helps, too.”
As Trees reflects on her winding journey that’s led her to this point, she feels confident and capable of handling whatever comes next in education because of all she went through in her first career.
“Being a journalist is similar to teaching because it’s different every day,” Trees said. “It’s truly never the same. You just don’t know what students are going to bring to the classroom each day and so you’re always ready. I’m always scanning the room and seeing if they’re listening and with me that day.
“But above all else, no matter what happens, each one of them is always going to know that I’m here for them and that I care.”