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Head of the class

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Benton (kneeling, center) helps her students build garden boxes, a class project that nurtured skills like problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork. Photos courtesy Heather Benton

In case you missed it, Tuesday was National Teacher Appreciation Day, which the National Education Association describes as “a day for honoring teachers and recognizing the lasting contributions they make to our lives.”

And now more than ever, they deserve our gratitude.

It’s been a rough year for teachers, who have been confronted with every conceivable obstacle. In spite of it all, they’ve met the challenge with grace, enthusiasm and an unwavering commitment to their students.

Heather Benton is one of those teachers. She teaches third, fourth and fifth grade (yes, all three) at Roots School in Haiku.

Her journey to the front of the classroom began 10 years ago when she answered a Craigslist ad for a part-time assistant teacher position at Roots School. It wasn’t long before she realized she’d found her true calling.

Kula resident Heather Benton is shaping young minds at Roots School in Haiku.

“I fell in love with it,” Benton said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Bitten by the teaching bug, she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In 2015, she left Roots School to teach third and fourth grade at Pomaika’i Elementary School in Kahului. Three years later, Benton returned to Roots School and has been teaching a multigrade class of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders ever since.

Established in 2006, Roots (also known acronymically as ROOTS: Real Ongoing Opportunities to Soar) School is a nonsectarian 501(c)(3) nonprofit licensed by the Hawaii Council of Private Schools and the State of Hawaii Department of Human Services and fully accredited by the Hawaii Association of Independent School and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Located in Haiku town, the independent private school serves students in preschool through eighth grade and provides a flexible learning environment characterized by multigrade classes, small class sizes, project-based teaching and an emphasis on critical thinking and creativity.

Like countless other educators across the country, Benton had to adapt to an entirely new way of teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s been teaching her students science, math, writing and other subjects at an outdoor classroom in Haiku. Yes, it can get a little muddy on some days, but she doesn’t mind. (And neither do the kids.) “You have to be okay with the messy part of teaching,” she said.

Indoor or out, every day she’s in the classroom, Benton shows her students that learning is an adventure and encourages them to be curious about the world around them.

Roots School made a number of COVID-19-related adjustments this academic year. Among other things, it set up outdoor classrooms like this one in Haiku. Heather Benton (pictured here, standing) and her students enjoy the open-air learning space.

“I love hearing my students ask thoughtful questions that start with ‘what if . . .?’ or ‘I wonder if . . .?’ “ she said. “If they are inspired to learn, then I’ve done my job.”

Benton takes the responsibility of being a teacher to heart and says she is often reminded of a Bahai quote: “The education and training of children is among the most meritorious acts of humankind.”

P.S. If you did miss National Teacher Appreciation Day on Tuesday, don’t worry: National Teacher Appreciation Week 2021 ends today, so there’s still time to thank your favorite educator.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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