By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
JD Benison is from Grand Rapids, where he attended sixth grade at Zoo School on the campus of John Ball Zoo, a program through Grand Rapids Public Schools. While there, he had the opportunity to work in the zoo kitchen alongside the zookeepers to prep meals and clean cages. His teachers nurtured his enthusiasm for the enjoyment of the world around him and learning beyond the classroom with kayaking, music, camping, and much more.
That incredible experience may have paved the way for Benison’s interest in education, but it was a winding path. When he ended up at the University of Michigan for college, he was unsure of what his future would look like. He loved both theater and math. And as he looked for some magical career that managed to bring the two together, he realized the teachers who had helped shape him got to perform and work on interesting problems all day. He says that getting to work with kids—some of the few people who can match his unyielding energy—was enough to push him over the edge.
Now a resident of his adopted hometown, Ann Arbor, Benison is happy to explore creative ways to instill curiosity and excitement about the world in his students. He looks forward to new adventures with his fiancee, Stacie (also a graduate of the University of Michigan), and growing their collection of rubber ducks and “happy little whales.” You are likely to encounter them on Sundays in Kerrytown at the Artisan Market, selling handmade items and strumming a ukulele.
What will you remember most about the school year 2020-21?
It was my first year of teaching, so I might remember different things than other teachers. I’ll remember getting to make rewarding connections with students and looking every day for new and unconventional ways of interacting and forging relationships with a disparate separated classroom.
How is this year going so far?
In many ways, it feels like another first year of teaching. It’s definitely nice to have the group of kids all together though; navigating all the bumps of the day is so much easier without navigating all the tech issues alongside it.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I always really loved school. I like finding ways to make otherwise boring tasks fun and interesting. But I know that not everyone had the same experience with school; it’s a place that can be draining and impersonal. I want to make school a place kids want to be, and inspire lifelong learners that find adventure in the world for all my students.
Describe an average workday.
I get to school about 7:45, giving me an hour to tune my ukulele, adjust or finish lesson plans and connect with coworkers. In class, we start the day with a fun question, games, and singing, which helps build a community that persists as we get into more structured, academic work.
That community is especially felt at the end of the day during what we call “closing presentations.” Each student takes a turn presenting a short speech they have prepared for the class. As soon as the student finishes, the whole class erupts in applause and they shower the presenter with praise. I’m so glad we have a class that supports each other and I am grateful to fill students with experiences and memories that affirm their confidence, ability, and self-worth.
What’s the happiest part of your day?
I love teaching my students what we call visual literacy—what kids can “read” about visual media, especially film. I am always blown away seeing these kids make sense of complex ideas as they read between the lines and understand that an author’s message can be so much more than words on a page. They are able to tackle complex ideas like theme and symbolism in ways you wouldn’t expect an elementary schooler to do simply by reading a book. It is a format they already know and love, and they like finding more meaning and value in those storytelling devices.
What’s one of your hidden talents?
Someday I’ll be humble enough that I won’t blare all of my hobbies and interests to everyone around me. Then I’ll actually have a “hidden” talent. As it stands, I wear my love of singing and performing and animation out on my sleeves.
What song do you know all the lyrics to?
Any song from the Original Broadway Cast recording of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
My friend and coworker Jory got me hooked on a podcast called Annual Pass, which feeds my addiction to learning about every possible fun fact about theme parks.
If you could know the definitive answer to any one question, what would that question be?
How did Le Pétomane (a French performance artist in the early 20th century who got famous by going to fancy venues and farting out songs and other flatulence-related acts) do it? Not the farting part (although it would be a fun party trick), but how did he get the French elite to buy into such a lowbrow act? It must be an interesting story.
What makes teaching at Burns Park unique?
We have a very supportive staff. As a new teacher, I’ve always felt supported, encouraged, and welcomed with open arms. My colleagues are friendly and caring professionals.
How do you keep students engaged?
I listen to them and respond to things they care about. Making sure school is a place kids want to be is one of the most important things to me as a teacher. With that as my focus, engagement naturally follows.
What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
Having kids trust me with more than just a math question is a moment that makes me glad I do what I do. Developing relationships, when kids open up and trust me more as a person, resource, confidant, whether it’s questions about the world, struggles at home, or conflict on the playground—that’s a really rewarding feeling.
What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?
Being a teacher leaves a lot more room for individuality than you might think at first. Kids are looking for an example of what it looks like to grow up and interact with the world. Showing that caring about things and loving the world around you is a great model to set and works best when a teacher is being true to themself.
What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life?
Now that I have my feet under me and know what teaching looks like, I can infuse more of myself into the classroom. I’m able to run with the things I’m excited about and that the kids are excited about in ways that make the classroom more engaging, alive, and intentional.
Personally, I’ll be getting married on March 19. That’s pretty exciting if I do say so myself!