When Kimberlain Zenon-Richardson was the assistant principal at Braden River Middle School six years ago, she was tasked with hiring new teachers.
Faith Bench was interviewing for a position as a math teacher at the school.
“I told [then-Principal Randall Petrilla], ‘We need to have her,’” said Zenon-Richardson, who is now the principal of the school. “She blew me away talking about the relationship [with students] piece. I know that’s what the kids needed.”
Since then, Bench has been dedicated to her students and teaching math in her own way.
Bench is one of four finalists for Educator of the Year in School District of Manatee County’s Excellence in Education Awards.
The other finalists are Jennifer Santora, a third grade teacher at B.D. Gullett Elementary; Amanda English, a science teacher at Bayshore High; and Susan Nickerson, a fourth grade teacher at Palmetto Elementary.
“To be this far along is just so exciting,” Bench said. “I can’t believe it’s real.”
Bench said being a finalist is exciting because it’s “one of the biggest awards a teacher can win in their career.”
Zenon-Richardson said Bench is a “one-of-a-kind teacher.”
“What I see from her is that she makes learning fun,” Zenon-Richardson said. “It’s engaging. It’s collaborative and very interesting for the students, but the biggest thing that makes her successful is her ability to build relationships with her kids.”
Bench’s abilities to individualize instruction for all her students allows her to “reach every child,” Zenon-Richardson said.
Bench started her teaching career seven years ago in Pinellas County. When her son, Bradyn, started kindergarten at Braden River Elementary School six years ago, she decided to find a position at a school closer to the elementary school. She landed next door at Braden River Middle School and has been there ever since.
Bench doesn’t consider herself a “math person,” meaning someone who understands the subject easily.
“I always struggled with math, even concepts that my peers got effortlessly,” she said. “I always struggled and had to get extra help.”
Despite her challenges, she found her own way to understand the subject during her time as a student teacher.
“I remember seeing their eyes light up, and they understood it when I taught the way that made sense to me,” she said. “I just remember being like, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Breana Nasser, one of Bench’s current students, said her teacher is “not like every other teacher.”
“She teaches in a way that really sticks with us,” Nasser said. “She makes learning math fun, and making it fun could totally change a student’s attitude toward learning, and I think as a student that is very important.”
Wendy Pittman, a math teacher at Braden River, said Bench’s positive and enthusiastic attitude helps students want to do their best.
“She’s always willing to help others and maintains a good rapport with her students,” she said.
Pittman said Bench has also been instrumental in helping other teachers at the school receive grants for classroom supplies and learn how to incorporate more technology into the classroom.
Unlike traditional classrooms, Bench’s room has whiteboard desks, a Promethean board, a reflection area and a few cats.
Although the cats are just toys, they breathe and make noises just as normal cats would as a way to help students relax.
Bench was the first at Braden River to use Khan Academy, a nonprofit that provides practice and lessons in math and other subjects with online videos.
Khan Academy’s website offers other teaching tools and is meant to supplement its videos.
Other teachers at Braden River Middle have started using it after learning about it from Bench.