The Veterans of Foreign Wars in Waxahachie awarded Autumn Helland, an English teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School, the Smart/Maher VFW Citizenship Education Teacher Award.

Helland will be recognized at the state-level for middle school teachers Jan. 27 in Austin. Randy Hughes, the commander of Waxahachie VFW post 3894, said this is the first time a teacher representing this area has been recognized at the state level.

Judges scored Helland on her model citizenship and community involvement, innovative approach to teaching citizenship, development of resources to teach citizenship education, and her passion for teaching citizenship education.

“I feel honored. It’s kind of weird because I don’t feel like I’m special at all — or I feel like there’s a lot of teachers who deserve the same award,” Helland said. “I feel honored to be rewarded for something I care so much about. I love being a teacher.”

For the past 12 years, Helland has been an educator and spent the last four years teaching English at all grade levels at St. Joseph. She said St. Joseph Catholic School is sentimental to her, as she was married in the chapel on site and had her children were baptized there, as well.

It was St. Joseph Catholic School history teacher, Christi Davidson, who went through the process of nominating her coworker for the award.

“My colleagues saw something in me that I always hoped that I delivered to the kids,” Helland said.

Both of Helland’s parents served in the army as military police officers at Ft. Bliss in El Paso. But as time went on, her parents divorced, and her single mother raised her in Lancaster. During her younger years, she had that one teacher she looked up to, which inspired her to teach.

“It’s important to me [being a teacher] because when I was a little girl — you know my mom was a single mom, so my dad wasn’t always around. So I kind of depended on teachers to be that extra parent since I didn’t have that in my life. That’s something that I think about.”

Helland strives to be that same style teacher in her students’ lives. She said her job is unique in the way that she teaches the same students through their education. Her classroom size is only about six to eight students too, which allows her to be able to connect on a personal level. Creating a bond with her students enables her to experience more “teachable moments.”

“So I get this opportunity to watch them grow up in this very transitional time in their lives,” Helland said.

But, along with teaching English, Helland also teaches the students religion, which allows her to connect with her students and teach them more about life skills and overcoming adversity. She explains it helps to make "them better people, not just academically but spiritually that’s kind of the culture around our school.” Helland wants her students to retain the moral compass after they graduate junior high.

Even though her students serve as validation of the excellent job she’s doing, receiving this award is a hefty pat on the back. It also serves as motivation for her. In the past six months, Helland has prayed about going to graduate school in order to become a principal. This award has encouraged her even more during the early stages of applying for graduate school.

Not only will Helland receive a plaque for her local recognition but will also accept a plaque from the State of Texas. Along with her memorabilia, she will receive $1,000. She plans to use this money to help fund her master's degree in educational leadership.