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Rochester's former Minnesota Teacher of the Year leaves the classroom for district-wide leadership

Natalia Benjamin was a teacher at Century High School for seven years.

Natalia Benjamin
Natalia Benjamin on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Rochester Public Schools in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — After spending a year as the Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Natalia Benjamin has left the classroom with the intention of having a wider impact.

Starting July 1, Benjamin began her new role as coordinator of multi-language learning for Rochester Public Schools, working with students and families who qualify for services. The reason she made the switch, she said, is multifaceted.

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"I wasn't looking for it, but there's various things in my professional journey that led me to this," Benjamin said.

Aside from being one of the few to nab the statewide honor of being teacher of the year, Benjamin was the first teacher from Rochester, as well as the first Latin teacher, to do so.

Benjamin has plenty of background in multi-lingual contexts. Her masters is in language acquisition and she's taught English as a second language. She grew up speaking Spanish, French and English in her native Guatemala.

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Before arriving in Rochester, she owned a business teaching Spanish and French to young students.

In her new role, she's tasked with supporting teachers, engaging and communicating with multi-language families, overseeing state testing and removing barriers to access for students from diverse backgrounds.

The goal, she said, is not just to help students operate within an English-speaking world, but to help them use all the knowledge they have in their learning environment. She said it's about creating spaces where students can lean into their identities.

Natalia Benjamin
Natalia Benjamin on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Rochester Public Schools in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

"Their access to knowledge goes beyond just what they can access in English. If we built a classroom environment where English was the only way to do anything, we're already denying them part of the knowledge base that they have, and we're even denying part of how they interact with the world," Benjamin said about multi-language students.

She gave the example of having a writing assignment in class. During the brainstorming session for that assignment, she tells students they can write down their ideas in any language they want.

Allowing students to operate that way, she said, is beneficial for both the students and the staff.

"I think it helps them tap into their potential," Benjamin said of the students. "It helps us change how we see students as well."

Benjamin taught at Century High School for seven years. But ultimately, she knows her role as an educator is not just tied to the classroom. When deciding to move on to her new position, Benjamin said she realized she could have a bigger impact reaching students at the system level.

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District-wide, there are approximately 1,600 students who qualify for multi-lingual services. There's an even larger pool of students who come from multi-language families but don't necessarily need or qualify for additional help.

"I'm just honored to share my journey," Benjamin said. "Because there's not many immigrant, multi-lingual educators that are in this position to be able to help shape systems that work for students, families and teachers."

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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