Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Gina Benz (SD '15)

February 16, 2016

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English teacher Gina Benz (SD '15) adores her students, but her favorite hour of the school day is the one she spends with her colleagues, who share her intellectual curiosity, a common vision for their school and a commitment to the community. Gina received her Milken Educator Award at Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls on October 20, 2015.

Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?

Gina Benz: Growing up on a farm in South Dakota, I only had my sister as a playmate. We enjoyed the typical childhood make-believe games, and one of our favorites was playing school. My grandma, who taught in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie and later in a small elementary school, would provide us with old workbooks to use in our play. But I don't recall wanting to be a teacher until I was in college. Up to that point, I'd dreamed of being a sports writer, then a chaplain, and then a marriage and family therapist. When I went to college, I knew that my dream of being a therapist would require graduate school, so I did what many of my current students do and made teaching my backup plan. It made sense. The sports writer in me loves words. The chaplain in me loves serving. The therapist in me loves delving into the human condition. Only one semester into college, though, my backup plan became my vision. The education classes I took at the University of Sioux Falls sparked a fire in me, and I knew I had found my calling.

MFF: Who was your own most memorable teacher?

Gina: I once asked a friend what her son's favorite sport was. She responded, "Every season his favorite is the one he's playing right then." That's how I feel about my most memorable teachers. Every semester the teachers I had then were my favorites. I am incredibly fortunate to have had so many teachers from kindergarten through grad school who fascinated me and inspired me. All had something great about them that I've remembered and incorporated into my own work as a teacher.

MFF: Tell us about your first year.

Gina: My first year as a teacher was incredibly difficult. In addition to serving as the oral interpretation team's assistant coach, I taught English I, which was mostly freshmen; American Literature and Composition, which was mostly juniors; and Modern Literature, which was mostly seniors who were only four years younger than I. Much of my energy that year was spent not only creating lessons and assessments from scratch but also figuring out classroom management through a lot — and I mean A LOT — of trial and error. Many days I would have gone home discouraged had it not been for my colleagues, who commiserated with me or made me laugh, and a group of my students who let me know they appreciated the work I was doing. What surprised me, perhaps, were the powerful relationships teachers develop with one another. For me, and for many of my colleagues, some of our very best friends are the people we work with.

MFF: A student tells you he/she is thinking about a career in education. How do you convince him/her?

Gina: Teaching is my life's work, my calling. Some of my former teachers are now my colleagues, and likewise, some of my former students are now my colleagues. That cycle of inspiring, supporting, and working together from generation to generation is more than cool; it's sacred. Nevertheless, despite these instances, too often I hear that students have been told, "You could be more than a teacher." And too often my students tell me, "Teaching is my backup plan." Working in medicine and saving lives might be more than being a teacher to some, and what people in medicine do is incredible, but we don't have amazing physicians and researchers without the amazing teachers who inspired and challenged them. We don't have brilliant engineers and architects without the brilliant teachers who poured out their knowledge and experience. Teachers and parents together establish a foundation in each person's life that impacts love for learning, appreciation for meaningful work, and concern for others. That's why teaching matters, and that's why teaching is an incredibly rewarding career. Unfortunately, teachers rarely see the end result of their labor. Yet, we who teach continue to invest in students’ lives because we know that the dividends are not our own but all of society’s, and that makes teaching so rewarding.

MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?

Gina: The Milken Educator Award presentation highlighted my profession as a sacred calling, characterized by service, leadership, expertise, and innovation. Many students and other community members were excited by the event because the Milken Foundation showed that teaching is not a thankless job but one of the most rewarding careers a person could have. In the week after I received the award, one of my students asked me, "Do you think being a teacher means you will have to be a martyr?" I replied, "Although teachers give and give and give to a calling they believe in, they are not martyrs. Martyrs die for a cause, but teachers live for a cause and even FIND life in that cause."

MFF: What's your favorite time of the school day?

Gina: I feel like a Milken Educator should say the first bell is her favorite time of the school day because it's full of hope and possibilities, and that is true, but in all honesty, my favorite time of the school day is lunch because it's a time to collaborate, laugh, and just do life with my colleagues. Teaching is such a rewarding profession in part because of my colleagues. I get to work side by side with people who share a common vision and calling in life, who are intellectually curious about the same ideas I am curious about, and who are committed to our school community.

MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?

Gina: For the past four years I've received a grant to purchase one or two classic novels that my students can read together, write in, and keep. The beginning of my grant proposal says this:

"Besides the book itself, what do avid readers hold while reading? A pen. Most people who love to read naturally make notes in the text, whether those markings be questions, comments, stars, exclamation points, or underlining. I sometimes tell people that I always write in my books because when I don't it's as if I were never there. Writing in a book is my graffiti that tells others, 'I was here.' Ironically, in school we scold or even charge students who write in their books. And even more ironically, in high school as we prepare students for college, we almost never prepare them for a form of note-taking often vital to their success: writing in the book."

If I had a million dollars, I would start by purchasing enough copies of the major pieces of literature our students read at all grade levels so that those students can write in and keep their books.

For my colleagues, I would like to provide all teachers the opportunity to attend a conference or workshop related to what they teach so that their enthusiasm and innovation for their classes might be enhanced or refreshed. I'd also like to add additional classrooms to our building so that every teacher would have a comfortable place where he or she could meet with students before and after school (though that might eat up the million dollars quickly!).

For our community of students, I would also like to establish a scholarship fund, especially targeted to students who come from families with little college experience and who have proven likely success in college through their hard work in high school.

MFF: When you retire (someday), what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?

Gina: A student once wrote in a card to me, "This is where I was perfect." Her statement has always stuck with me, not because I expect perfection and not because I don't recognize and accept the shortcomings and flaws we all possess. As she elaborated, I could see that her statement reflected a core belief I have: All people are smart, just in different ways. When I meet my students where they are, when I recognize their strengths and capitalize on those, they find truth in literature and empowerment in writing. I hope I leave a legacy that hinges on empowering people through education and giving compassion through listening. I learn so much from listening to my students and reading their writing. Everyone has a story, and every story has a lesson that can help us be better people for ourselves and for society. I teach English because I believe in the power of people's stories.

MFF: If you hadn’t chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?

Gina: Because I love people's stories and because I value the power of listening, I think I would have loved being a marriage and family therapist or a chaplain, which were visions of mine 25 years ago. More recently, I've been practicing and studying yoga. Many yogic practices and philosophies have helped me reduce the occurrence of migraines and also influenced how I teach, so if I weren't in my current teaching career, I might still be teaching — just a different subject with different people.

MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I’m succeeding as an educator when…"

Gina: "...when my students feel a sense of pride because of what they have learned in my class."

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