Katherine Bennett doesn’t mind that her students are talkative. That just means they’re comfortable expressing themselves.
“I want them to be real with me, not stuffy or controlled,” she said. “Good learning doesn’t happen in that environmental at all. They need to be [open]. … I’ve had kids tell me in the past ‘This is the first time I feel like myself, in this class.’”
That openness helped Bennett earn the honor of Phillip C. Showell Elementary School’s Teacher of the Year for 2019-2020.
Her colleagues called her kind, professional and well-respected, while also building a positive learning environment.
“Ms. Bennett encourages her students to never give up. Her students all learn to be leaders, rather than followers,” said a student named Ella.
“Katherine is a wonderful representative for Phillip C. Showell,” said Principal Christy Kerr. “She embodies all that we believe about our students — that with the right people behind you and rigorous expectations, you can accomplish anything that you set your mind to!”
Local children are going to be local community members one day, Bennett emphasized.
“They’re the future. They matter. And I think people need to know that. So we’ve got to do whatever it takes to make the schools the best they can be,” she said. “They’re going to run the county one day.”
After five years at Georgetown Middle School, Bennett has worked for six years at PCS. She said she likes fourth grade because students still love school, but they’re more independent and can understand her humor and sarcasm.
“I have a great little class. … They all work really hard and made great progress,” said Bennett.
Bennett has an inclusion classroom, and she said she loves getting to know kids on an individual level.
“We talk early on in September about how my No. 1 job as a teacher … is to make sure they feel safe and comfortable at school,” she said. “I want them to completely trust and believe I have their back, no matter what.”
A Indian River High School graduate, this is Bennett’s first Teacher of the Year award. She said she was honored to be nominated by both students and staff.
“It’s humbling, in one sense. It’s nice to be recognized and that people notice. Teaching is isolating. You get stuck in your four walls” to focus on the children, Bennett said. With all the afterschool paperwork and grading, it’s tough to even talk to colleagues about what they’re doing, she added.
But Phillip Showell is like a family, and “I learn from other teachers,” Bennett said. “They’ve helped me grow as a teacher, big-time.” The children have also “shaped me, the good and the bad.”
She said she is also grateful for her family’s support, especially her grandfather, another longtime teacher. Other past teachers inspired Bennett toward education, such as her “amazing” first-grade teacher, who helped when Bennett struggled with reading.
She later earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Shepherd University and master’s degree in teacher leadership from University of Delaware.
Don’t underestimate the teaching profession, Bennett urged.
“They think it’s easy … or it can’t be that hard,” but some people don’t understand “the dynamics of kids and what they bring to the classroom, how hard it is to instruct a kid” who brings baggage or flat-out trauma to the classroom, multiplied by different levels or learning styles. “And you somehow have to keep them engaged and excited. … I just wish people know that it’s not easy.”
So what’s the secret to engaging a whole classroom of young minds? Bennett uses less lecturing and more movement, group work and even some decision-making. For instance, kids sometimes get their choice of free reading or free writing time.
“I think changing it up helps a lot,” she said.
“Katherine is an amazing teacher. She builds amazing relationships with all of her students, which creates an environment in which kids are willing to take risks and grow,” said Kerr. “She also creates high expectations for all of her students, no excuses are allowed! This attitude helps each student reach their highest potential.”
In academics, Bennett serves on IRSD’s Math Lead committee, in which elementary teachers find new strategies to help students. In athletics, she has coached middle- and high-school sports.
Outside of school, Bennett said she loves reading, living near the beach and, currently, watching “Game of Thrones.” She loves to travel, especially to Jamaica, where her grandparents lived for a while.
Otherwise, Bennett said, she has found her passion.
“I never had doubt, ever,” that she’d become a teacher. She said she loves “the little things, the sweet note you get from some random kid … the smile on their face when they master some skills. I think, too, seeing them grow up and blossom … is really awesome.”
Bennett and the other 15 individual school Teachers of the Year were honored at an April 30 IRSD celebration.
By Laura Walter