9 questions with Century High School teacher Natalia Benjamin
"Being able to provide answers to their questions or being able to guide them in directions so they can take steps to be successful in what they want to do is very rewarding," Century High School teacher says.
Natalia Benjamin is a teacher who has a lot to be proud of. Originally from Guatemala, she's tri-lingual with English, Spanish and French to her name. She's also able to read and write basic Russian.
She's served in groups such as the National Education Association and Education Minnesota. She's been a guest lecturer at the University of Wisconsin. She's even been a swim instructor over the years.
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Most recently, though, the Century High School teacher has been named one of the finalists for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. A selection panel is scheduled to have interviews with the finalists this summer. The 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Qorsho Hassan, will announce the new recipient in the fall.
In Benjamin's case, her teaching goes beyond the textbooks and quizzes. In a year defined by COVID-19, it includes learning how to show empathy. It includes realizing that not all learning comes in the form of subjects found in the list of standard curriculum.
What was your reaction when you found out you were nominated for Teacher of the Year?
It's a little overwhelming, especially since I work alongside so many amazing educators. A lot of the work that I do is work that I don't do alone. It's a lot of collaboration with other teachers. It's a lot of support and networking with other teachers through different associations and groups I belong to. I just hope I can represent them and their voice as well because it's not something I do alone.
How did you get into teaching in the first place?
Before we moved to Minnesota, my husband and I had started a small private school teaching Spanish and French to elementary-age children. When we moved here to Minnesota, I had to find a vocation. I started subbing in the school district. After I did that fairly regularly, I decided to make it more official.
How did you decide to start the school to teach Spanish and French?
When my husband and I graduated from college and graduate school, we moved to a place that didn't have opportunities for our students to develop their language skills. My master's is in language acquisition and teaching, so we decided to create opportunities for not just my children, but others in the community.
How long have you been in Rochester?
We moved to Rochester 10 years ago.
So what do you teach now?
I teach multi-lingual students at the high school level. And then, I also teach one class of ethnic studies.
We have a lot of different cultures and ethnicities represented. We have students from east Africa, from Asia, from the United States, from Eastern European countries.
Does that make things challenging since you're working with students who are all learning English, but coming at it from different origin languages?
I don't know if "challenging" is the right word. I think we work together to make meaning of the language. We all work on developing strategies to make meaning of words that we may not understand. In that sense, it's not any different than English speakers trying to make sense of words that are new to them in any content area. If you think of the first time you start a new science class, it's a lot of learning about strategies to make meaning of these ideas and words that are new to you.
How do you connect with students, and is that important to you?
I think connecting with students and building relationships is paramount to anything we do. I think it's foundational for students to trust me in order to do any work together. I make it a point during the time I have with them to build those relationships.
When we were online, we started our day with a question: "how are we feeling" or "what are your plans for this weekend" or "do you have something to share with the class?" Sometimes they seem like silly questions, but it creates opportunities for students to share with each other and get to know each other.
I always tell my students: I'm not going to ask you to do an assignment or do a task that I'm not willing to do myself. So, as we go about writing stories, I will write my own story, and I share those with them as well so that they can see me as an individual too and not just as the teacher of the class. I think they're able to connect with me in that way.
It's been a tough year for many families. So I make sure that my first question is not "why isn't your work done?" My first question is "how are things going?" and "are you OK?" And then we can move on to work.
How has the last year been for you?
The constant change has stretched a lot of teachers, including myself, because we never had time to settle into one thing.
If there's something I've learned this year it's to have more empathy and grace for each other. Many people have experienced loss, whether that's family members, whether it's jobs, whether it's routines. Regardless of what it is, we've all experienced something. Taking a step back to reflect on that, I think, is important that at the end of the day, we can see each other as people and human beings rather than issues and problems. Personally, that's something that I've appreciated: that we get to see each other more as people.
Any final thoughts?
Recognizing that teachers are trying to do what's best for students. There's been a lot of talk about loss, and that includes loss of learning. There's been a lot of learning that may not have been what was required: math, English, or social studies. But we had to figure out the technology piece. There's a lot of learning that happened, and sometimes that's not reflected in the conversations about learning loss.
Asked & Answered is a weekly question-and-answer column featuring people of southeastern Minnesota. Is there somebody you'd like to see featured? Send suggestions to email@example.com .