ROCHESTER, Minn. — A Rochester, Minnesota, high school teacher has been named Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
Century High School teacher Natalia Benjamin is the first from Rochester to receive the prestigious award.
Benjamin was one of nine finalists before being recognized during a ceremony Wednesday night, Aug. 11, in the Twin Cities. The event included comments from previous Teacher of the Year award recipients, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.
Walz, a former teacher himself, paid tribute to educators for the work they accomplished during a historically difficult year.
"We've never seen a year like this," he said during the ceremony. "Our children are watching a chaotic world. They're watching division all around them. They're watching a nation and a world that's a little less kind to each other than when we went into COVID. And they needed a place of sanctuary. They needed someone there to bring the calm, to bring the decency, to bring the sense of hopefulness. And each and every one of these classrooms did that."
According to Education Minnesota, the teachers union hosting the event, Benjamin is the 57th recipient of the award. In addition to being the first from Rochester, she also is the first Latinx Teacher of the Year.
Her recognition is even more significant considering the total number of Minnesota educators. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, there were more than 57,000 public school teachers throughout the state during the 2017-18 school year.
Although Education Minnesota is the organization hosting the event, the award is open to both public and private school teachers, raising the number of possible recipients even higher.
“Natalia sets her students up for success by fostering a safe, positive and welcoming learning environment for every child,” Molly Murphy, assistant principal at Century High School, wrote 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 teaches ethnic studies and English as a second language. Through ethnic studies, Benjamin helps students grapple with both current and historical events.
She said they begin the class talking about identity — who everyone is, as a person, a student, and everything else that makes up an individual.
"We want to have a classroom environment where we feel comfortable sharing, and where we know each other so that we can talk about hard topics and be respectful and uplift every voice in the classroom," she said. "We talk about hard things that we may not have solutions for today. But it's still important to look at what's happening around us."
A Guatemala native, Benjamin grew up speaking, reading and writing French in school. She began learning English in middle school, according to a release from Education Minnesota. Prior to moving to Rochester about a decade ago, she started a school teaching Spanish and French to elementary students.
When asked how she felt about being nominated, Benjamin was quick to share the credit with her fellow teachers.
"It's a little overwhelming, especially since I work alongside so many amazing educators," Benjamin said earlier in the year. "A lot of the work that I do is work that I don't do alone. It's a lot of collaboration with other teachers. It's a lot of support and networking with other teachers through different associations and groups I belong to. I just hope I can represent them and their voice, as well, because it's not something I do alone."
During the ceremony Wednesday, she reiterated that sense of shared accomplishment, recognizing her fellow teachers, her family, and others who have helped her succeed.
She paid tribute to her grandparents, as well as her father, who instilled in her the importance of education.
She also recognized the impact of the pandemic.
"We all have suffered loss in one way or another," she said. "Now more than ever, we need each other and we need to work together for our students and families, especially those from marginalized communities who have suffered the most. As we prepare for the next year with certainty and optimism regarding the current COVID-19 pandemic, let's unite to bring the best of us for each of our communities."