Minnesota Teacher of the Year Natalia Benjamin thinks we need to reflect more on students’ non-academic needs.

Benjamin settled in Rochester a decade ago with her husband, and teaches at Century High School. She’s served in the National Education Association and recently, was named the Minnesota Teacher of the Year -- the first Latinx person to receive the prestigious award. Benjamin teaches ethnic studies and English as a second language.

We caught up with her as Rochester heads into the new school year.

I was wondering if there's anything that you've learned while being nominated and then chosen for the Teacher of the Year. Is there an inherent learning opportunity in learning about all those other excellent teachers?

Yeah, absolutely. I think sometimes when you are reflecting on your practice and, you know, looking at doing things better… I think being able to have that connection with other teachers helps me to be more reflective to being able to say, “Okay, I'm going in the right direction, the questions I'm asking are the right questions.” Or, “I see that this is working for other people as well.” And so I think it helps reinforce ... whether the steps that I'm taking are in the right direction. And I think it also fosters creativity, right, and new ideas, like they might be working on the same thing but they're doing it from a different perspective or they're taking a different angle. And so I think as I keep refining, whether it's the materials or the process for thinking in the classroom, then that just helps me fine-tune what I'm working on professionally.

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So, as a trilingual teacher, how have you used those skills when teaching students with very different backgrounds in the same classes?

I think there's something that we have in common when it comes to learning a different language and just living in a country different than the one where we were born, and so I think I can make a connection with them. ... I've always thought of language-learning as one way, and I think the focus has been, for many years, on the mechanics, on the form of the language. So we focus a lot on vocabulary and grammar and literature with things the ‘right’ way. And that's an important piece of learning a language. But I think more important than that is building the confidence of students, and in their language ability -- in developing that identity as multilingual speakers and multicultural individuals in the United States. I think that's something that I've worked on throughout the years. I just didn't have the language to describe that, earlier in my career. So as I've been working, teachers of heritage speakers have been able to be more intentional in helping these young adults to develop those identities through their language-learning experience. I understand what it's like to write to try to fit in, to try to excel at what you're doing when you may not have all the words. then I think I can bridge that understanding from my experience, to the tools that they may need for themselves to be successful.

How are you building confidence in those students?

Part of the learning process is making mistakes, and I (build) an attitude in the classroom where we're going to practice, we're going to make mistakes together, and we're going to learn from those, so that we can improve our language skills. So I think that is one part of it. … I always tell them, “I'm not going to ask you to do something I'm not willing to do at the same time you're doing it.” (At) the beginning of the year, we always do story-telling to work on narratives. Because most young adults are used to telling stories, right, whether it is about what happened, the last game they played or, you know, just their personal experiences. … So we're looking at stories, and we start looking at our own stories. I try to model that and make sure that I am willing to share my story. ... I think that's created a very powerful opportunity for us to not only create a community of learners, but also to be able to understand people that may have different experiences on their own. And so I think that those are two ways to help them foster confidence.

Do you have to approach your English learning classes differently from your previous Spanish learning classes? I ask because living in America, English is the standard, there there are definite social, political consequences for people who don’t speak it fluently. Whereas as someone who took Spanish in high school, I worked hard on it then, but I always knew, in the back of my mind, that there wasn’t going to be a real problem if I forgot everything afterward. How might you approach those attitudes differently?

Let me answer that in two ways. So when I worked with students learning a new language and learning Spanish as a new language, it was a very communicative base, and I think it was about opening, like, a window to the new language, a new culture. Maybe foods and traditions that they weren't familiar with. And because they were still, you know, within their own English-speaking community, we didn't do as much work with their English-speaking identity. We worked more on discovering this new language and culture.

When I'm working with heritage speakers and multilingual speakers learning English, there's a couple of things to consider. One is, yes, the high stakes of helping them become the most fluent in the least amount of time. That can be tricky because, as you know, learning a new language takes a lot of practice and a lot of time, and we only have so many years in the school setting to work with our students. And so I'm constantly trying to provide opportunities where they can challenge themselves. We're reading texts about history that they may not have known because they didn't grow up here, or they may not have the same information their peers who were born here have. They weren't exposed to the same pop culture, shows, TV, etc. So in a way that's similar because we're still providing opportunities for them to discover this new language and culture. On the other hand, something that I'm constantly trying to foster is also maintenance of their home language. Because we are removed, often, from communities that speak their home language, sometimes it's hard for them to maintain those skills. And a lot of times because they're trying to learn English, that takes precedence over, maintaining the languages. So it's important for me to reiterate the importance of the language they brought with them. We know that will help them be more successful in school when they keep those languages because those languages carry knowledge with them, that they can transfer to their school setting and other settings, and their future.

Sometimes it's tricky to balance. I obviously won’t speak all of the languages that are present in my classroom, but I want to make room for those languages to have a role. If we need to translate some words or they need to look those words in their home languages, then we do that. Sometimes I can't explain, or after trying several times, students still don't understand. Sometimes there may be somebody else who uses their home language, and then they are able to help each other and explain in that language. Finding ways to value the other languages, I think, is also important.

Is there anything that I haven't touched on that you wanted to add or emphasize?

I also reflect what's transpired in the past year and a half, where we're starting a new school year. I keep saying this: everybody's been through a lot, whether you've experienced big losses or small losses. I think everyone's been touched by COVID to different degrees. Everybody's lives have been disrupted or touched in one way or another. And as we begin a new school year, I think it's important for us, within our school communities and within our classroom and within our neighborhoods, to pause a little bit and reflect on what we've been through, and just take a minute to see how we move forward, so that we can think about what each individual student is coming to school with. What do they need right now, and what are the best ways to meet their needs? Because they have academic needs and social, emotional needs. So I think it's important for us to, as we're getting back into academics and learning new things, that we consider what other needs our students have so that we can work together to support each other through this next year. Hopefully we're all going to stay in the schools and keep going because that's what works for the majority of our students. But I think we just need to be a little bit more reflective of how we go about being more supportive of everybody in our community.