Ask Bonnie Spears-Benedetto about her work, and her voice scales up, her face transforming at the prospect of talking about the kind, smart second graders at Barry Elementary in West Philadelphia — the jokes they tell, their resilience, the way they absorb everything, even through a pandemic and other challenges.
“I love these kids,” said Spears-Benedetto, who came to teaching late in life, after a first act spent working for an insurance company. “I love, love, love this job with a passion.”
Spears-Benedetto’s enthusiasm and skill is emblematic of excellent teaching happening in classrooms across the Philadelphia School District. On Tuesday, she and 59 other excellent educators — nominated by their school communities and chosen by a committee of Lindback trustees and district officials — will be recognized by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation as tops in their field.
The 2021 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching comes with a $3,500 prize, but more importantly, it comes with public recognition for the kind of difficult, important work that changes children’s lives.
Philadelphia is enriched by the work of the 60 teachers and educators throughout the city, said Sheldon Bonovitz, a Lindback Foundation trustee. And in this COVID-19-touched year, the award recipients have done “an incredibly outstanding job in navigating their students through the challenges they faced.”
Firm, fair, friendly
Ernest Milton’s secret sauce for teaching is simple, he says: firm, fair, friendly.
“In that order,” said Milton, who has spent decades teaching in Philadelphia classrooms, the past 16 years at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science and previously at Audenried High School. “You establish the firmness first, then over time they see you’re fair, and then they see you’re a friendly person, and it’s with them forever.”
But that recipe doesn’t capture the full essence of Milton, who teaches African American history. His intellectually rigorous classes are often cited by students as the “foundation to their identity development,” the Carver community wrote in its nomination letter for Milton. It is common for Carver alumni to mention Milton’s class as a “turning point in their growth.”
Many of Milton’s students have gone on to study African American history in college, and that’s gratifying, Milton said, but just as satisfying are the small moments that happen in the classroom, the times when he’s able to reach reluctant students, or make connections with young people who need it.
“Getting students to buy into their education is very important,” said Milton. “You have some students who need a little more impetus to get them going. Once you convince them that there is something worthwhile, then it works.”
He does not shy away from difficult conversations with his students, colleagues say. When Carver and the country were roiled by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police and the resulting racial reckoning, Milton led a town hall to help students and staff process the events; he’s also led panels on gender and Blackness, and discussions about the Capitol insurrection in January.
Even after a difficult year — most of Milton’s students have been fully virtual since March of last year and won’t see the inside of Carver at all this year — Milton said he’s still learning and enjoying his job. The students, he said, are the reward.
“They come in with one mind-set, and then when they leave with their diplomas, they’re totally different people,” he said. “You get to see them grow.”
‘I’m a mama bear’
Pre-COVID-19, students would walk into Amber Rawls’ studio at Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts, change into dance clothes and get right to work, warming up, perfecting routines.
It’s a different world now.
Rawls’ students still dance every day, but the first part of every class is spent checking in on kids’ mental health, talking frankly, laughing to lighten the mood if that’s what her students need. Rawls is always attuned to the fact that some of her students are dancing on their porches at home because there’s no room to move elsewhere, that many miss the refuge of being in a school building.
“To see them struggle in this pandemic, it’s heartbreaking,” said Rawls. “I have issues where if I tell a student, ‘You haven’t logged on in a couple days or you’re disappearing,’ they say, ‘I had to feed my sister breakfast, or I was working and I overslept.’ ”
Rawls never meant to become a teacher: A classically trained professional dancer who has worked with several local dance companies and the Philadelphia 76ers, she only started teaching classes after a friend talked her into it. Soon after, Rawls decided to get a teaching certificate and work in the Philadelphia School District, first at Harding Middle School, then West Philadelphia High School, Hill-Freedman World Academy and, eventually, KCAPA.
Her students love dance, but thrive on the relationships their teacher builds with them. And that’s carried them through this tough pandemic year, Rawls’ Lindback nominators said.
“Just imagine cameras all on, the teacher and students in their dance attire at home, constant positive feedback, music, smiles, and dancing,” they wrote.
Rawls has high expectations for her students and her cheerleaders, who took home another city championship this year, despite the challenges of dancing remotely for most of the year. And she often remains part of their lives, even after they leave her classroom.
“They drive me crazy, and I love them to death,” Rawls said. “I’m a mama bear, and my children are going out into the world.”
‘An urgent situation’
Bonnie Spears-Benedetto doesn’t want to hear the tropes about Philadelphia students: that they’re lacking somehow.
In 13 years of teaching at Barry Elementary, she’s been bowled over by the enthusiasm of her second graders — “smart and generous, sponges, they share whatever they have. Everything I have thrown at them, they have mastered.” But this year has shown Spears-Benedetto new things about her 7- and 8-year-olds, who now zip around Google meets, seamlessly navigating technology in a way that makes some adults envious.
That’s not to say it’s been an easy year.
“They’re little, and it’s a long time in front of a computer,” said Spears-Benedetto. “But this is an urgent situation. We had to make up a lot of last year and then make sure that our students move forward. It’s a challenge.”
“Mrs. B,” as the Barry community knows her, is revered, the school leadership committee wrote in nominating Benedetto-Spears for a Lindback. Her students “represent a reflection of her personality and leadership characteristics,” the nominators wrote. “Her scholars are loving, hardworking, caring and supportive.”
Benedetto-Spears, who took up teaching in her 50s, is retiring at the end of the year, but leaving her school and her students was a tough choice, she said.
“Teachers are always learning from each other, and that doesn’t happen in the business world,” she said. “I’m in awe of the whole profession.”