Four Oaks Elementary third grade teacher Jennifer Beninate was named the 2022 Johnston County Teacher of the Year at the annual Flame for Learning Award banquet on April 26.
Beninate is the epitome of a teacher, which by definition is someone who imparts knowledge and enlightens. It’s immediately obvious that teaching is her calling. She draws inspiration from her idol Mary Poppins and speaks to her students lovingly and calmly. “Teaching is just a way I get to be Mary Poppins every day,” she said.
Her flame for learning was lit at an early age. Beninate is a proud Princeton native and graduate of Princeton Union, now Princeton Middle/High. “It was great because I had interaction with the lower grades and could volunteer to read with them,” she recalled.
As Beninate moved through school she realized that elementary teachers were there to make learning fun, middle school teachers taught ownership, and high school teachers were mentors preparing students for the real world. “All along the way, I was fascinated by the classroom and the community of it,” she said.
Education was always important in Beninate’s family. Her parents were involved in her education, in ways such as the PTA and parent advisory committees. “There was never a separation of home and school,” she stated. “They were intertwined and the importance was always there.”
Beninate went to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW) earning a bachelor of arts in elementary education and a master of education. She worked at a preschool in the mornings and attended classes in the afternoons. “I would show up to my college classes covered in markers and glue,” she laughed.
Her first three years of teaching were at Pine Level Elementary. Beninate’s husband, Jason, who she met at UNCW, was in the military and they moved around quite a bit, going as far as Japan. Now they are back in Johnston County and loving it. “I wanted to come back home,” Beninate said. “I wanted to teach amongst some of my previous teachers and colleagues.“
She and Jason have two daughters, both of whom are students at Four Oaks Elementary. She also has two dogs, loves to garden, read and spend time with her family. “This is a great place to raise our children and a great community for our family,” she remarked.
A JCPS educator for 10 years, elementary school is clearly where she shines. “I get to be a part of so many people’s lives”, Beninate remarked. “It fills my cup.”
Last year Beninate taught second grade and she had a student who came into the classroom and immediately announced that they planned to drop out of school as soon as they turned 16 years of age. This student wasn’t excited about school, it was just a safe space.
Beniniate made it her mission to keep that child engaged. She did so by asking the student what they wanted to be when they grew up, and then showed them how their education would get them to that point. “I’ve poured into them,” she said. “I said ‘when’ you do this, not ‘if’. I spoke their goals to them”.
Now teaching third grade, that same student is in her class. There has been no mention about dropping out. “So many students just need someone to believe in them,” she remarked. Beninate looks forward to the day that student graduates high school, and she plans to be there.
Beninate’s approach to learning is, “Get them now, get them engaged, and get them involved,” she said. In fact her award winning best practice is a multi-step approach to team building and goal setting.
She intentionally discovers each student’s gifts and talents and then partners students together to build each other up. Beninate’s classroom motto is, "We were made to do hard things!"
The students are divided into groups and meet three times a week for 5-10 minutes to discuss and set goals. Goals include not just academic goals, but non-school related goals, like completing a backflip in gymnastics, and behavioral goals.
COVID created an extreme lack of social interaction so Beninate included behavioral goals in her multi-step approach. A behavior goal can be not talking in line or as simple as saying kind words to everyone. “They hold each other accountable and they celebrate together,” Beninate said.
Beninate will move forward to represent Johnston County in the regional competition, which is a part of the competition for North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year. No matter the outcome, she will continue making a difference every day in the classroom to each student that is lucky enough to have her as their teacher.