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Alumna Natalia Benjamin Makes History as Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year

From Guatemala City to Rochester, Minnesota, Natalia Benjamin has cultivated and shared her love of language and learning.

Photo of Natalia Benjamin
Natalia Benjamin is Minnesota's 2021 Teacher of the Year.
Photo by Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

In August 2021, Natalia Benjamin became the fifty-seventh recipient of the Minnesota Teacher of the Year award. Benjamin is the first person of Latin American heritage and the first educator from Rochester to receive the honor. During her acceptance speech, she encouraged others “to work together for . . . students and families, especially those of marginalized communities who have suffered the most.”

The Minnesota Teacher of the Year program is sponsored by Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators’ union with eighty-six thousand members. Each year, the honoree represents the teaching profession as an advocate and spokesperson for education. Pre-kindergarten through twelfth-grade teachers from private and public schools can be nominated by peers, school personnel, parents, community members, and students.

If a nominee chooses to become a candidate for the award, they participate in a rigorous, tiered selection process conducted by a panel of Minnesota leaders in education, business, and government. Candidates must submit a portfolio, create a video submission, and finally attend an in-person interview. Of the seventy-five original candidates and nine finalists, Benjamin was selected for the honor.

Will Ruffin II, the executive director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for Rochester Public Schools and a good friend of Benjamin’s, said, “She’s always doing something for a student. She never takes a break. . . . She literally does anything and everything for her students.”

Recently, the National Education Association (NEA) Foundation announced that Benjamin will also receive the prestigious California Casualty Award for Teaching Excellence at the NEA Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Gala next February. Awardees are nominated by their NEA state affiliates for their dedication to the profession, community engagement, professional development, attention to diversity, and advocacy for fellow educators.

Benjamin grew up in Guatemala City speaking Spanish and French and later learned English in middle school. After earning a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and a master’s in language acquisition and teaching from BYU, Benjamin thrived in several teaching and leadership positions as she used her education to help other English language learners.

Currently, Benjamin teaches English learning and ethnic studies at Century High School in Rochester, Minnesota. She says her “experiences with language created a passion and appreciation for multiple languages and cultures.” She hopes she “can be a small part of [her students’] journey[s] in succeeding as they follow their dreams.” The College of Humanities is proud to have alumni like Natalia Benjamin who truly entered to learn and have gone forth to serve.