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Natalia Benjamin: Americans want meaning in their lives and students need teachers

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Natalia Benjamin on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
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This is a time of transition, in our personal and professional lives, as we emerge from the worst days of the pandemic. I’ve been through similar journeys and I know that change is hard.

I’m originally from Guatemala and moved to the U.S. to attend college. My passion for languages led me to run a small business teaching Spanish and French to children because language education was not available in my community. When I moved to Minnesota, I had to find a new professional path and became a public school teacher.

Right now, the “Great Resignation” is leading people to also look for their new paths. These job changers frequently say they’re quitting because they’re searching for meaning in their careers.

For me, that search for job satisfaction was found in the classroom, where I’m bringing a needed approach to help multilingual students develop their English language skills.

Often, language learning focuses on teaching grammar, spelling rules and sentence structures. I believe these are ineffective in isolation. However, when used in context of different writing genres, students find success. Moreover, ethnic studies pedagogies and representative materials shape writing for real world applications.

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My students do this by interviewing community members and sharing their stories. These lessons fill students with pride about their community and build aspirational capital.

We use relevant topics and elevate their lived experiences, which allow us to celebrate each other and our achievements through an asset-based approach.

Natalia Benjamin
Century High School teacher Natalia Benjamin works with, from left, Tula Dahl, a sophomore, Cameron Johnson, a senior and CJ Schlotthauer, also a senior, during an ethnic studies class Monday, April 18, 2022, at the school in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

I wish I had more teachers to help us with this kind of method. Yet as I look around our district’s schools, I see colleagues disappearing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were approximately 10.6 million educators in public education in January 2020; today there are just 10 million, a loss of around 600,000.

The good news is that the American Rescue Plan secured $122 billion in additional funding for K–12 public education, to be used for many purposes, including hiring teachers and support employees.

I’m hopeful this kind of backing will attract people to our profession. The TV show “Abbott Elementary” also is a popular way Americans are seeing why people want to teach. Slate recently explained that the show “uplifts the value of choosing meaning and satisfaction in a profession, even one as financially thankless as teaching.”

The show gets many things right about the education profession, including the fact research shows that teachers earn 20% less than similarly educated and experienced professionals.

But money is just one way to value a job. Finding a purpose in what one does for a living is much harder. My professional choice will be recognized in May when the NEA Foundation presents me and four other educators from across the country with Horace Mann Awards for Teaching Excellence.

But the real reward is in my classroom, knowing that teaching matters, now more than ever.

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Natalia Benjamin is a multilingual learners and ethnic studies teacher in the Rochester Public Schools. In 2021, she was the 57th winner of the Minnesota Teacher of the Year award.

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