Cheryl Benzinger was studying elementary education at Canisius College when they handed her a student-teaching assignment: She would be teaching at The Park School. Though she had grown up in Cheektowaga in a house not far from Park’s Snyder campus, she had never heard of the school.
“John, my future husband, and I took a trial run just so I knew where I was going,” she recalls. “We pulled in, I remember seeing the Bungalow, and we drove around the campus. I looked at John and said, ‘This is where I want to teach.’”
“He said, ‘Really?’ And I said ‘This is the coolest thing.’ I just felt like I had come home.”
Years later, Park is a second home to Benzinger, who co-teaches the kindergarten class with Andrea Martzolf. She was hired at Park as a middle school English teacher. After three years, there was an opening in kindergarten, which she quickly applied for.
“I always knew I wanted to work with the little ones,” she says. “My absolute passion has always been little kids. I tell people I’m living my dream because if I had to pick, growing up through college, what grade would I wanted to teach, it was always kindergarten, kindergarten, kindergarten.”
What is it about that grade level that appeals to her so much? Benzinger says a big part of it is the magic moment when she sees a child reading for the first time.
“When I sit down in September with all the parents and tell them their child is going to learn how to read in kindergarten, they nod their heads and they’re like ‘yeah, yeah.’ One of my favorite moments is – it never fails – a few of them come up to me in January or February and say, ‘My child is reading!’ And they look at me like they can’t believe it.
“I love being a part of that. I see it on the child’s face when they can actually decode a new word for the first time and I look at them and nod, ‘Yes, that’s right,’ and their face lights up. I would say that teaching reading is the one thing about kindergarten that just moves me.”
Early in her career Benzinger team-taught with Valerie Occhiuto (currently Park’s first grade teacher). “She and I worked hand-in-hand to develop a kindergarten curriculum that would give children a solid foundation in the fundamentals of reading, writing, math, and communication skills. I am so proud of the work that she and I did. It was a labor of love Each year that I teach some things change but the philosophy remains the same…. All children deserve to be celebrated for their individuality and strengths.
Another part of the Park experience that Benzinger values is the chance to take advantage of the school’s 34-acre campus.
“Having the campus available to me is a huge asset,” she says. “Just the other day, we took the kids with Earth Spirit instructors across the soccer field and through the marsh. We went on an hour and a half adventure. You just wouldn’t get that anywhere else.”
Another special side of Benzinger’s job is the fact that she had the chance to have both of her boys as students in her classroom. Both boys, incidentally, referred to their mom as “Mrs. Benzinger” inside the classroom.
In her spare time, Benzinger is an avid runner. She and her sister Amy Wiese – who teaches pre-kindergarten at Park – can often be found after school setting out on Harlem Road for a run together. Benzinger says running is a good way to work off stress and get recharged for her daily transition from teacher to parent.
The 2013-14 school year will see the incorporation of iPads in the Lower School. “I am so excited about incorporating iPads into my curriculum this fall,” says Benzinger. “The children will work in pairs and engage in thought-provoking, hands-on activities that will help foster their critical thinking skills and help them become independent thinkers.”
Asked to comment on seeing students that she taught in kindergarten receiving their diplomas, Benzinger fondly reflects on Joshu Creel ’13. “Joshu graduated this year. He was the first student I had that went all the way through. As he accepted his diploma I could still picture him as a little boy with a love for owls and a charismatic smile. Even as they all grow… I never forget their kindergarten smiles.”