Natalia Benjamin, who teaches English language learners and ethnic studies at Century High School in Rochester, made history Wednesday night when she became Minnesota Teacher of the Year. She is the first winner of Latin American heritage. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Natalia Benjamin’s love of learning languages started early. Growing up in Guatemala City, the native Spanish speaker attended a French school. English became her third language when she started learning it in middle school.

Now, Benjamin teaches English language learners and ethnic studies at Rochester’s Century High School. And on Wednesday night, in a ceremony under a white canopy on the lawn of the State Capitol, she was named Minnesota’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. She is the first teacher of Latin American heritage to win the prestigious honor.

The celebration marked a moment of joy at the end of an extraordinarily difficult year for educators. Teachers struggled to keep students engaged through distance learning, switched between different learning modes throughout the year or even throughout the class period, and sometimes had to quarantine without notice, while students dealt with high levels of trauma. Now, after a brief period of hope for a normal school year this summer, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again—and children under 12 still aren’t eligible for a vaccine.

As she addressed the crowd to accept the award, Benjamin sought to share credit with many others who supported her.

“Even though my name was picked, the recognition is a reflection of the work that many hands do,” she said.

Benjamin credited her grandfather for showing her the value of education; her grandmother, who was a teacher; her parents for demonstrating the values of advocacy, service, and community organizing. She thanked her union for providing racial equity training, her teacher community, and her husband and kids for their support.

“I mentioned all these people because in order to have the best school environments for students and families, and especially for Black and brown communities, we need all of us,” she said.

Living in Idaho in her 20s, Benjamin started a language instruction business with her husband to provide foreign language classes for preschool and elementary school children. After her family moved to Rochester, Minnesota, she became a paraprofessional and substitute teacher in the school district before pursuing her own teaching license. She has taught at Century High School since 2015.

Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union, sponsors the Minnesota Teacher of the Year program. Last year’s winner was Qorsho Hassan, a fourth grade teacher in Burnsville and the first Somali American to receive the honor. Benjamin was selected out of nine finalists, and 75 total candidates. Five of the finalists identified as teachers of color.

Qorsho, who sat on the selection panel, said she was struck by Benjamin’s commitment to teaching the truth without fear of backlash. “I think she is that fearless leader that we need,” she said.

Jess Davis, the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and another member of the selection committee, agreed. Benjamin’s “authentic sincerity” impressed her. “I got a sense of what it would be like to be a student in her classroom, and being truly seen by her as a teacher,” she said. “I think she puts the humanity of her students at the center.”

Benjamin teaches her English language learners through an ethnic studies framework, as well as separate ethnic studies classes. In an interview last fall, she told Sahan Journal she looks for texts and stories related to languages, history, and cultural identity to reflect her multilingual students’ experiences. 

One example is the novel Code Talker, by Joseph Bruchac. The story features a Navajo teenager growing up in World War II, who wasn’t allowed to speak Navajo attending a white-run boarding school. But later, his Navajo language skills became important to the war effort—the language became an unbreakable code that helped save American lives.

“A lot of the experiences are related to not being able to speak his language in school, and then later being able to use his language for good,” she said. “Those are things that, as multilingual learners, we can relate to. …At the same time that we’re learning about other cultures, it can validate our own experiences.”

Benjamin hopes to use her year in the spotlight to advocate for meeting students’ needs—academic, social, and emotional, she told Sahan Journal after the ceremony. That means educators will need resources and training.

“I think it’s important as we are coming back from the pandemic to realize that it’s been a tough year for everybody, whether you lost people or jobs or homes,” she said. “We all need to just take a moment to reflect on that and take care of each other.”

‘She’s always doing something for a student’

Will Ruffin II, the executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Rochester Public Schools and a good friend of Benjamin’s, watched the livestream of the ceremony.

“I was recording it on my phone so that I can post it to all of my social media accounts,” he said. “And then I noticed that I was screaming in the video. I was screaming in excitement for her.”

As Ruffin and Benjamin have become close over the past few years, he’s seen how devoted she is to her students.

“Whenever I talk to her, or text her, she’s always doing something for a student,” he said. “She never takes a break. And it’s just amazing to watch, and it has to be exhausting at the same time, but she literally does anything and everything for her students.”

Benjamin helps her students learn by providing the tools they need to make their own decisions, Ruffin said. For example, when Rochester Public Schools implemented a new grading system that was supposed to be more equitable, Benjamin steered her students to figure out how it would affect them.

“They went through the whole scientific process, and they had charts and graphs and they did all the work behind it,” Ruffin said. “But in the end, they were able to draw their own conclusions. That’s just the type of teacher she is. She let them live through the moment. If there’s something that they don’t understand, okay, let’s figure this out together.”

Jess Garcia, who was elected as the first woman of color* in recent memory to the Rochester school board last fall, also screamed in excitement—in what she called “an uncharacteristic fashion”—when she heard the news.

“This is so impressive, and empowering, even to me,” she said. “As a young Latina woman I didn’t always see Latinas represented in a powerful sort of way. This award for her speaks to so many of us.”

Garcia called Benjamin “fully deserving” of the award.

“This is something that she has done the work for,” she said. “She is very quick to pivot towards thanking or acknowledging others, which is how many of us are raised. But I am just so incredibly proud of her.”

‘An extraordinary teacher can change a student’s trajectory’

“This is one of the most hopeful events that I have been to in quite some time,” said Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan from the stage. She spoke fondly of her second grade daughter’s teacher last year, keeping her daughter motivated as she logged on to class from next to her bunk bed.

“An extraordinary teacher can change a student’s trajectory,” she said. “You all step up, and our teachers of the year step up, and meet that challenge every day, and under extraordinary circumstances over the last three school years.”

Governor Tim Walz thanked Qorsho, the outgoing Minnesota Teacher of the Year, for her year of service. “Your dignity and your passion as an ambassador for this profession was uplifting, was incredible to see,” he said. “We’ve got children all across Minnesota that believe that they can do anything because of your example, and for that I am incredibly grateful.”

He thanked the rest of Minnesota’s teachers, as well. In a chaotic and traumatizing year, kids needed a place of sanctuary, he said; teachers provided it.

“Teachers know that our kids are bringing trauma to that classroom, but they’re also bringing their hopes and dreams, and we get an opportunity to help channel those,” he said.

‘She went through every single thing that she could do’

As the 2020-2021 school year began virtually, Benjamin spent her prep hours reaching out to students and families to track down missing pupils, troubleshoot technology, inquire about absences and missing assignments, and make sure her learners had what they needed.

Still, she found time to be active in the League of Latinx Educators, an affinity group of Education Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, the state has about 1,500 licensed Hispanic teachers out of more than 100,000 total licensed teachers. The League of Latinx Educators also celebrates the achievements of their community, strives to root out anti-Blackness within the community, and advocates for more teachers of color statewide. 

“She went through all of the leadership development classes that were offered through the union,” Ruffin said. “She went through every single thing that she could do. And I just think, who does that?”

She’s also the adviser to the school’s Latinx Club and a newly formed Photography Club. Even in a virtual learning environment, the students in Latinx Club asked to meet regularly over the summer so they could keep socializing, Benjamin told Sahan Journal.

Cultivating an environment where she can build relationships with students, and they in turn build relationships with each other, is central to Benjamin’s teaching philosophy. Even through the many months of distance learning last school year, she led her students in building community in their Google Meet by sharing personal news from their lives, like a job interview or a driver’s permit.

In an education system where students of color are overrepresented in discipline data and underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses, she wrote to the selection committee, they need all the opportunities they can to find success.

For Benjamin, that means building trusting relationships: showing students the strengths of their language skills and culture, choosing curriculum materials they can relate to, giving them choices in their learning, and making sure their needs are met.

“The most important thing I can do to turn around statistics,” she wrote, “is to build relationships with students.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

*Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that Jess Garcia is the first woman of color, not the first person of color, elected to the Rochester school board in recent memory.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.