Some people grow up knowing they will become teachers, and never waver from that intention. Emily Benson, a fourth-grade teacher at Meriden’s Roger Sherman Elementary School, was one of them. For Benson, it was a first-grade teacher named Mrs. Riccio who showed her the kind of educator she wanted to be.
She brought visitors into the classroom to bring lessons alive; decorated the classroom like the Amazon for a unit on rainforests; and – most importantly – invited students into her own life, even letting them help pick the name for her coming baby.
“She had a huge emphasis on relationships, and making sure they came first,” Benson said.
The year after Benson was in her class, Mrs. Riccio moved to another school. They hadn’t seen each other for 16 years when Benson ended up student teaching in her former teacher’s new school. When she knocked on the door of Mrs. Riccio’s room to say hi, the teacher looked up and said “Emily!”
“It was the coolest thing ever,” Benson recalled. “It showed how invested she was, the fact that she remembered me from being six to being 22.”
When Benson graduated and began working in a Title I school in Meriden, she brought that caring approach into her own classroom, focusing on connecting with her students and providing the kinds of experiences they might not get outside of school.
She also spent time with her students and their families outside school hours, too. In eight years of teaching, Benson has attended countless games, birthday parties, plays, and dance recitals that her students have invited her to.
But it hasn’t always been easy for Benson to find time for the things that matter most to her as a teacher. Her first year of teaching, she filed all of her lessons into folders, thinking it would make the next year easier. Then the curriculum changed, and she had to start over. In the seven years since then, she’s experienced several more program and curricular changes.
“You go into your first job thinking this will be sunshine and roses, and realistically, there are sometimes roadblocks you need to work around so you can still do what you want to do,” she said.
In Benson’s case, that has meant finding time for visitors within the constraints of pacing guides, and making curriculum lessons more engaging. On Veterans’ Day, she introduces her students to a friend who was a former Marine. After teaching about area and perimeter, she brings her husband, a general contractor, into the classroom.
“Teachers need to be resilient and flexible, and that’s what I’ve worked on getting better at,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided the ultimate test of that flexibility, forcing Benson and her colleagues to remake all of their lessons for remote learning. Last year, she taught entirely online.
At first, it was difficult to build a classroom community over a computer, Benson said. But she persisted, maintaining in-person traditions like morning meeting and Student of the Month, and adapting others to a virtual environment. Students still earned “brownie points,” but instead of working towards an actual brownie, they got a virtual one. Not as tasty, perhaps, but at least it could be redeemed for rewards. Classroom guests visited virtually.
She also sent students postcards after tests, telling them she was proud of their efforts; on holidays, she’d mail cards or little gifts.
“Kids love getting mail and it's such an old-school thing that doesn’t happen as often anymore,” she said. “They would get so excited that something came in the mail for them.”
Knowing they were cared for made students more willing to show up for online learning, even when faced with technical challenges, Benson believes.
Benson is also big on calling parents to encourage them to celebrate their children’s achievements, a practice she continued through the pandemic. Many of the parents in her low-income district work long shifts or multiple jobs, and aren’t always aware when their children are succeeding in school, she said. Calling or texting them lets them know when to heap on the praise and lays the groundwork for a positive parent-teacher relationship, she said.
That way, “if there’s ever an issue, it’s more of a ‘we’re working together to solve it,’ than the parent feeling attacked,” she said. “The tone is different because the foundation is already there.”
One upside of online learning was that it gave Benson a literal view into her students’ home lives, helping her connect with them over their circumstances. If a student with divorced parents logged on from dad’s place one day, rather than mom’s, Benson would remark on it; if a sibling appeared on screen, she would greet them.
“Knowing that those things were getting noticed showed how invested I was in them,” Benson said.
By the end of the year, Benson felt the relationships she’d built with students were the strongest she’d experienced in her eight years as a teacher.
What I learned is that the classroom isn’t what makes your class, it’s the people who are in it – whether in-person, or virtually.
And she didn’t have to scrap all her lessons and start over this year, either. Though her students are back in the classroom, they still use Chromebooks, so many of her online lessons can be recycled.
Looking back, Benson said she is proud she was able to adjust to online teaching and to support her students through a difficult period.
“Knowing that I was able to provide for them during a time that was high stress and scary is extremely rewarding,” she said.