Her own personal love of learning and language is what inspired Natalia Benjamin to become a teacher, and helping her students find their own voice within language and the world is part of why she was named the 2021 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
“Students can find their voice and realize that as they understand and read the world around them, they have the power to shape it and their personal futures,” said Benjamin in one of her essay submissions for the award. “Together, we can build an educational system where the integration of representative curriculum and equitable practices can lead to a reduction of inequitable discipline data and opportunity gaps.”
Benjamin is a high school English learner and ethnic studies teacher at Century High School in the Rochester school district. Benjamin is the 57th recipient of the award, the first from the Rochester district and the first Latinx teacher to be named Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
“Our students don’t see themselves reflected very often,” she said. “(Being the first Latinx Minnesota Teacher of the Year) has made me realize how much more we have to uplift and represent the cultures.”
A native Spanish speaker, Benjamin also grew up speaking, reading and writing French while attending a French school in Guatemala City. Later, she learned English in middle school and high school. She says the exposure to different languages prepared her to better understand a child’s language acquisition process.
“Natalia sets her students up for success by fostering a safe, positive and welcoming learning environment for every child,” wrote Molly Murphy, assistant principal at Century High School, in a letter supporting Benjamin’s nomination. “She has an ability to vary instruction and adjust lessons to meet student needs. Natalia creates an open, supportive environment with mutual respect among the students.”
Benjamin knows that her classroom is a space to do more than just learn a language.
“I want to make students feel more comfortable speaking in the United States, but it’s not about the grammar or the vocabulary,” she said. “Learning more about heritage speakers really captured my passion and my heart in how we can provide more culture lessons and accurate history for our students. That opened the door into how I could improve my teaching and how I could provide more opportunities for students to tap into the ideas not always talked about in our school settings.”
Benjamin said she also knows just how much her classroom is a space to help take care of their community.
“We’re still in the pandemic, but we need to come to a better understanding of what has happened in the last 18 months,” she said. “It’s been a rough year. Everybody’s been through something. This is an opportunity for us to think about how we build educational environments that make room to talk about all these issues. Society at large needs to think about how we talk about opportunities where we build learning communities not just on academics but on the skills we need to take care of each other.”