Educator Spotlight: Benjamin Kelly
STEM teacher in Canada embraces experiential learning, empathy and honesty with students
This story is part of a weekly series that celebrates outstanding teachers in our Flipgrid community. Stories by Angela Tewalt.
Years ago when he was first studying to be in medicine, STEM teacher Benjamin Kelly would spend his summers off in the mountains to work as a camp counselor at the Catskills in New York.
The escape was a calling in disguise. With physics on the brain, he had nothing but a wildness in his heart – the bubbly grownup who was sure to run alongside the children, complete all the activities and projects, too, and sing along with them each night.
He was playful, committed, and engaged and, in the end, a few months out of the year weren’t enough to be with the kids, so he became a teacher instead.
Today, his students get to reap that same camp counselor energy. At a small country school in New Brunswick, snuggled up among the Atlantic provinces in the far east of Canada, Benjamin is outside with his students. They’re hunting or fishing, building drones underneath the trees and having meaningful, intimate conversations as if he’s still around the campfire in New York.
Benjamin is devoted to both his school and his students. He uses his big energy and love for tech to spark imagination in the children, and he gives them permission to run free with their ideas.
“These kids are so inspirational,” says Benjamin, who’s been teaching STEM to grades K-12 for over 15 years. “I never want to just stand in the classroom and not be a part of the learning. I want to get in there with them as much as I can and offer them some sort of authentic purpose!
“When I was a camp counselor, I was just enjoying everything they were enjoying, and I really do feel that is still in my teaching practice today.”
Bringing up empathy, civic engagement
A few years ago, Benjamin started weaving empathy into his STEM curriculum. In the same way he strives to participate intentionally in the classroom, he believes empathy infuses purpose in STEM learning.
“Every college is sending off STEM graduates into the world, so there had to be a way to differentiate our kids – not to make them different, but better,” says Benjamin, who last year received the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in teaching STEM. “Once I started making empathy the focus of STEM, I could see our students offering praise and caring for each other in a way that our society needs moving forward.”
Benjamin is empathetic to his students, too – encouraging open discussions on how each of them will participate in their own communities and families. They write down sustainable development goals, build homes for families in need on Minecraft and hone leadership skills by having honest conversations in civic engagement.
Last fall, when Canada was going through a federal election, Benjamin helped his students create a sort of town hall on Flipgrid, where his seventh- and eighth-graders asked questions of their local representatives. Even though they couldn’t yet vote, these students asked about road safety, tourism and national parks, and politicians each took time to respond.
This year, he’s been covering the U.S. presidential debates in his classroom and considers it a responsibility of his students to follow a neighboring election. They talk about social media influence, the differences between governments and, at the end of the day, how all of this makes them feel.
Just like he did with his camp kids years ago, Benjamin checks in with his students, makes time for fresh air and acknowledges the great life and accountability that lies ahead for each of them. He is the joy and encouragement they need to succeed after they leave the big embrace he offers each day.
“We’re trying to improve our society and give our kids a better future, so I really do believe it’s one of our jobs to raise better citizens than we are,” Benjamin says. “Hopefully, these kids are going to be taking care of us when we’re no longer able to do it, so we’ve got to preach that citizenship piece and be there for them.”