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Minnesota Teacher of the Year Natalia Benjamin says award helped her find her voice

Through it all, Benjamin has been an advocate for students, for teachers, for marginalized voices. And while she embodied that role before becoming teacher of the year, she said the past year has helped her learn how to operate better in that space as well.

Natalia Benjamin
Century High School teacher Natalia Benjamin speaks to an ethnic studies class Monday, April 18, 2022, at the school in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Natalia Benjamin’s run as Minnesota Teacher of the Year has come to an end, but it was an experience she will take with her for years to come.

Benjamin received the recognition in 2021 , becoming the first teacher from Rochester, as well as the first Latinx educator, to do so. In a city with more than 1,500 school teachers – and a state with more than 50,000 teachers – that was no small designation.

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But, no matter how much of a stand-out teacher she was before, this year has helped her hone her craft even more.

“I think it's helped me be more reflective, and I think that’s what, in the end, helps educators be better at meeting their students’ needs,” Benjamin said about the experience. “I’m always learning. I think there’s always a better, or different way to do things. As our students faced different challenges this year — and at the same time, some of the same challenges as prior to this — I'm always asking that question of 'Is this the best way to solve this problem?'”

Natalia Benjamin
Century High School teacher Natalia Benjamin works with a group of students during an ethnic studies class Monday, April 18, 2022, at the school in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Originally from Guatemala, Benjamin is a teacher of English as a second language, and ethnic studies at Century High School.

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The role of Teacher of the Year brought some unique opportunities for Benjamin. She participated in panel discussions and podcasts. She was able to testify before the Minnesota Legislature. She was able to collaborate on a Google Doodle and attend training sessions for educators at the Smithsonian. She’s also had chances to speak at colleges and universities.

For that matter, the opportunities associated with her run aren't entirely over. She has the opportunity to be featured on an upcoming TED Talk. She’s still in the process of figuring out what her message will be about. She’s trying to narrow her selection from a group of topics she’s passionate about, like multilingualism, and the importance of families and communities both in and out of the classroom.

And as recently as this past Friday, Benjamin was named one of the five recipients for the Horace Mann award for Teaching Excellence. A press release on the award said it “recognizes educators for their diligence and dedication to students, colleagues, communities, and their profession.”

She also spent time advocating locally, such as when she helped speak for increased pay for paraprofessionals.

So what was the top thing she took away from her experience of the past year?

“I keep coming back to this idea of support networks. I think the most valuable thing that I got out of this year was the connections that I was able to make,” Benjamin said. “A lot of the other Teachers of the Year, as we’ve met and as we spent a whole week together in Washington D.C., they really became family … and that’s invaluable. And I think it’s also life-changing to know that I have this group of people who are there for me.”

Through it all, Benjamin has been an advocate for students, for teachers, for marginalized voices. And while she embodied that role before becoming teacher of the year, she said the past year has helped her learn how to operate more efficiently in that space.

“I think it has helped me understand how and when to use my voice,” Benjamin said.

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Through it all, she has remembered her roots. During her acceptance speech in 2021, Benjamin paid homage to her grandfather, who cherished education.

100821-CENTURY-HOMECOMING-PARADE-00127.jpg
Century High School homecoming parade grand marshal, Natalia Benjamin, takes part in the parade Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“My story begins many years ago and in a land thousands of miles away,” Benjamin said during her acceptance speech. “It’s from my grandfather that we learned the value of education.”

She went on to credit her father and her grandmother as well.

That legacy, that foundation for her life and career, is not something she has taken for granted, especially as she made her way through her tenure as Teacher of the Year. She knows how proud her grandfather would have been. And, she knows it’s the values he instilled in her that she wants to carry forward.

“I think there’s no better way to show gratitude than to just live his legacy and to be able to share that with other young people,” Benjamin said about her grandfather. “And hopefully, (it will) inspire them to make sure they do their best in school so they can do their best outside of school and fulfill their dreams.”

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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