Fairfield Ledger

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Neighbors Growing Together | Oct 21, 2017

Messer named Teacher of Year

Fourth-grade Pence teacher product of Fairfield schools
By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | May 09, 2017
Courtesy of: JOLENE BULLIS Justin Messer, middle, receives the 2016-17 Teacher of the Year Award Monday morning at the Teacher Appreciation Breakfast. Congratulating Messer are Pence Elementary School principal Chuck Benge and Fairfield schools superintendent Laurie Noll.

Pence Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Justin Messer received the district’s Teacher of the Year Award for 2016-17 during the Teacher Appreciation Breakfast Monday.

The district also named Marcia Gaines the 2016-17 Friend of Education for her assistance with elementary children. The Teacher of the Year Award was sponsored by the Fairfield Economic Development Association and Fairfield Manufacturers Association.

Messer is a local product, having attended Fairfield schools in his youth before graduating from Fairfield High School in 2002. He said several teachers in the district made a lasting impression on him. Among those include Mrs. Shade, for “torturing” him in special education classes, except for the shamrock shakes she brought on St. Patrick’s Day, which helped Messer overcome barriers to reading and eventually become a book lover.

Mr. White was easy-going, and Messer respected his call-it-like-I-see-it attitude. Messer said he appreciated Mrs. Bradfield for not letting him get away with work that was “mostly complete.” He credits Mr. Slechta for teaching him to speak up to prevent a lost opportunity, and thanks Mrs. Dunlap for teaching him how to express himself through the written word.

He said Mrs. Higgins taught him one of the most valuable lessons he never knew he was receiving.

“As she taught calculus, she was also showing me how to falter in front of a crowd yet come out even more respected than before,” he said. “One example that comes to mind is when she had made a mistake for maybe the third time in a single period, and one of the more adept math students called her on it ... again. As a new teacher, I am fairly certain she was flustered at having made repeated mistakes in front of her class. She took a deep breath, smiled, and laughed at herself followed by praising my classmate. It was in such stark contrast to the many examples of teachers who would defend themselves to a fault or use authority to quell any discussion of error.”


Life before teaching

Though Messer was heavily influenced by his teachers growing up, he did not decide to become one himself until almost a decade after leaving FHS. After graduation, he enlisted in the Army under the College First program. He completed his Associate of Arts degree from Kirkwood Community College, then started the “most fun yet terrifying rollercoaster of events in my life: the U.S. Army.”

From 2004 to 2009, Messer visited many countries, including two tours of duty in Iraq. In 2009, Messer tried his hand at being a chef, since cooking was one of the things he loved before leaving for the Army. He went to Kirkwood’s culinary school for a semester before dropping it for a position as a sous chef in Ottumwa.

“I quickly realized that while I loved the kitchen and had some degree of talent for it, I didn’t fit the role. I moved on,” he said. “As I thought about what I did enjoy from each of the jobs I had, it came back to educational roles. This realization led me to switch academic focus for the umpteenth time to something I actually enjoyed.”

The following year, Messer did some soul searching and decided it was time to blaze a new trail. He enrolled at Buena Vista University to study education.

Messer has an interesting story about what made him choose education as a career. It was not just to emulate the good teachers he remembered fondly, but also to prevent other children from having the sad experiences he suffered through.

“It started because I had one elementary teacher who I truly despised,” he said. “For whatever underlying cause she may have had, she acted as a cruel, bitter and generally unpleasant instructor. She told my parents during a conference that I would be lucky to be accepted into a trade school if I graduated, and not to expect me to advance to college.”

Messer said he wants to stay with elementary education his whole career because he knows from personal experience that early educational experiences have long-term consequences.

He became a Title 1 reading and math teacher in Washington, Iowa, and is now in his fourth year of teaching fourth-grade at Pence. He said the job is not at all what he expected.

“It is far better,” he said. “When I started, I expected to challenge students and help meet their diverse needs. What I ended up with was groups of adults-in-training who eventually learn to challenge me with topic-based questioning.”

Messer said he was the one challenged to defend the skills taught at school under the “unwavering scrutiny and unfiltered honesty only children can truly provide.”

He said the most rewarding part of being a teacher is helping students have an “aha” moment, the sense of joy they feel when they understand a concept. The most challenging part is balancing time spent on his “school family” and the time spent on his family at home.

When not in the classroom, Messer likes to dabble in home improvement, fishing, cooking and gaming. He said he occasionally brings up his hobbies with his students, but more importantly he shares with them his personal experiences, victories, sorrows and setbacks.

“Any chance to help a student make a concrete connection with real world problem solving is one that I want to take,” he said.

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