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He left tech to become a Colorado high school teacher. His key to classroom success: ‘love the kids as much as the content.’

A girl writes in a notebook, with a calculator and white piggy bank sitting on the desk.
Ken Benson teaches history, economics and financial literacy at Niwot High School.
FatCamera / Getty Images

When his students began learning remotely last year, high school teacher Ken Benson felt like he was seeing more ceiling fans than faces.

But he was determined to keep teens engaged no matter where they were. He tried new technology tools, games, and his sense of humor.

“Making connections with students is what fills teachers’ souls,” said Benson, who teaches social studies, economics, and financial literacy at Niwot High School in the St. Vrain Valley School District.

A self-portrait of a man with brown and grey hair, who is wearing black-rimmed glasses and smiling. Courtesy of Ken Benson

When one student fell off the radar completely, he learned that open communication, plus a little grace, help, too.

Benson, a member of the state’s Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet, talked with Chalkbeat about his transition from the technology industry to teaching, how dollar store items figure into his favorite lesson, and why all the planning in the world doesn’t guarantee success in the classroom.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I had been working in the technology sector for years with the typical ups and downs. My wife and I had just had our first child when the company I was working for folded. Being a teacher herself, she recommended I give teaching a try. My original thought was, “There is no way I can see myself as a teacher!”

I was lucky enough to fill an eighth grade U.S. history and science position on an emergency license that did not require teaching experience. Over the course of the year, I began to realize that I possessed some skills — patience and a passion for the content — required of a teacher, but had a long way to go. I certainly learned a lot that year!

How did you connect with your students during the pandemic?

I tried to engage students in the lesson, no matter where they were, with games, technology, humor, or just interesting content. I used a program called Nearpod, which is like PowerPoint but with extra bells and whistles. It allows the teacher to get immediate feedback through quizzes, drawing prompts, and games between presentation slides. Kids at home were more engaged on days I used Nearpod.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your job over the last year?

I couldn’t reach all students — especially those at home. Getting them to keep their cameras on was a battle I simply couldn’t win. As more students came back to the classroom, everyone (at home and in school) received the same instruction during the first half of class. When I was done, kids at home were free to sign off and work independently. I found that kids in school received a richer experience since I was still there to expand on the content or answer questions.

Were there any silver linings that came out of the last year?

I consider myself adept at technology, but one can always learn more, right? I familiarized myself with a myriad of techniques and tools, especially having to do with making videos. Beyond Nearpod, I learned a program called “Explain Everything” which is a tool used to make video lectures. It’s useful for students to review a video lecture if they were absent or missed something the first time. I can also use the technology for the regular classroom once things are back to normal.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

For years, one of my favorite lessons has been a trading simulation game. Every student is given a paper bag with a cheap item in it: a comb; silly putty; candy; playing cards. (I make an annual pilgrimage to a dollar store.) They can trade with other students in successive rounds. After each round, I have them rate their item on a scale of 1 to 5. Without fail, the average rating rises over the course of the simulation, demonstrating that trade does indeed create wealth.

I tweaked the game a bit for those students who were stuck with an undesirable item; one that no one would trade for — say, a bag with cat food in it. After a few rounds, I allowed those unlucky participants the chance to trade their item for another one from my stock. The point was that they were given a second chance — a chance to improve their lot when the market would not. While trade is a great way to improve people’s livelihoods, it is not perfect and sometimes people need a helping hand. We always have good conversations about the welfare state and the benefits of trade.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Last year, one of my students had been doing quite well, then I stopped receiving any work from her. After several conversations with her counselor, her parents, and the student, it was brought to my attention that she was struggling from a paralyzing bout of anxiety but thought putting on a brave face would make everything better.

She developed enough confidence to share with me how she was doing emotionally and what her plan was for finishing the necessary assignments. After our conversations, she did recover and was able to finish my class with a respectable grade. What it taught me is that teachers don’t always know what’s going on in kids’ lives and that a little grace and mercy, along with direct communication, can go a very long way.

What’s the biggest misconception that you brought to teaching?

I thought that the more energy and planning I poured into a lesson, the better it would be. There is no direct link between planning and execution, unfortunately. Of course, good planning and organization can yield good results, but all the planning in the world really doesn’t matter if the lesson falls flat in the classroom. I have become more cognizant of that and have learned to grow from the lesson flops by either tweaking around the edges or blowing the whole lesson up, if necessary.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am currently reading “The Anthropocene Reviewed” by John Green. He is a well-known young adult author as well as the host of many Crash Course videos on world history.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

When I made my switch into teaching, I asked my friend, also a teacher, what to expect. His advice to me was to love the kids as much as the content, if not more. He said just because someone is a master in physics or music, for example, does not guarantee they will be a success in the classroom. He said the true measure of a successful teacher is not necessarily how much they know but the kinds of connections they foster with their students.

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