Alumni Spotlight: Benton Wise
In his alumni interview, Duke TeachHouse inaugural fellow and mentor Benton Wise (Trinity '13, MAT '14) discusses the challenges of early career teaching and the impact of TeachHouse on his current work. Benton graduated from Duke with a BA in Public Policy and minor in Education in 2013 and a Master of Arts in Teaching in 2014. He currently works as an Instructional Designer at Principled Technologies.
I think that for me, at an early age, it was really apparent that education was important. Growing up my parents emphasized education, and grades and homework were a priority. It was interesting because my sister and I always went to a school almost thirty miles from where we grew up [in rural Marion, SC], a private school and later a public school. I think from an early age I felt that education was important, and I noticed that it mattered where you went to school.
As I’ve become older I’ve realized that I’ve been able to experience a lot of success in my life not necessarily because of my own virtues but because I went to certain schools. Not everyone gets those same opportunities. So when I went back into education, it was to learn the ropes but also to start dreaming of a system where everyone has equal access to education.
Why Duke TeachHouse? How did you become involved?
After earning my MAT from Duke, I went back to South Carolina. I wanted to farm, and I wanted to teach. I was expecting it to be fairly easy to transfer my teaching license to South Carolina, and it wasn’t. It was my first lesson in seeing the many challenges with the teacher licensure process. It is not simple and is not easy to navigate. I ended up teaching in Lake City, but it was about an hour away from where I was living. It was a rural school district that I knew fairly well, but it wasn’t really my close hometown community, and it was a 50-minute commute, one-way.
Teach for America was a new initiative in Lake City. There was a billionaire pumping a lot of money into the area. So, in a lot of ways Lake City was doing things I really wanted to see, namely innovating! But also, I had a really challenging first year. The school was focused on test scores, and it created an environment where kids couldn’t be kids and learning wasn't engaging. Almost all the teachers were stressed and struggling in some way by the end of the year. When teachers are that stressed, kids are stressed, too.
After my first year, I was going to move to high school teaching there but then I heard from my former professor, Dr. Kate Allman, about TeachHouse in Durham. After having such a tough first year, I thought I could go back and help first year teachers, especially because I didn't have a community of my own during my first year. Having a first year teacher community seemed like a good idea because I’d seen so many teachers drop out or just suffer alone. I’d learned that when a first year teacher is not taking care of themselves, the teacher can’t take care of their students.
What was the most memorable part of your experience in Duke TeachHouse?
There are two experiences that stand out from my time as a resident TeachHouse fellow. The first one is the fact that when you have three new teachers and three veteran teachers in a house and have this community of teachers that meet on a daily basis, if any one person is having an issue, then you have a collective 3-9 years of experience in the house to support that individual. That sort of pooling of resources really helps to identify and find solutions that will work. Often, before or after dinner or around the copy machine there would be someone trying to work through an issue and someone else there would have a suggestion or idea. It was innovation at its finest! To me that is the best thing to come out of TeachHouse because it is a truly organic way of problem-solving by using teachers’ own experiences to offer ideas, as opposed to just following a policy or a think-tank pushing an idea. What makes it even more unique is that teaching can be very isolating. And while you could do that type of work-shopping at school, it just doesn’t happen as often.
The second experience that stands out was having the superintendent - or any community member - come to the house and let us know that teaching is valued. There were many times that the community came in and that was very encouraging. I think all communities need to be more involved and know what’s going on in education, like I saw happening at TeachHouse.
Describe your path after your TeachHouse fellowship. How did TeachHouse impact your future work?
My goal in going into education was always to try to understand a very complex problem. In college I researched education policy, which I believe is how you address large-scale systemic inefficiencies. I came to realize that policy research would not be beneficial unless I understood the on-the-ground work of teaching. I want to leverage my experience to inform better change as I pursue a career in education. I, of course, know that I won't be 'the' change in education. But whatever I do, I'll never forget the kid that I was as a child, the kids I taught in Lake City, and the kids I taught at Southern [in Durham]. All kids need more advocates for their education.
What advice would you give to future early career teachers?
There’s a list of things! First, don’t reinvent the wheel; collaborate with colleagues. Also, when you’re planning a lesson, if you’re engaged and excited, your students will be engaged and excited. Lastly, if you don’t take care of yourself, then there is no way you can take care of the kids. For those starting in education, collaborate and lean on each other--you need to bond and develop relationships to be able to support yourself and others.