From Server to Head Table, NSEA’s New President Took Traditional Route
Nearly 25 years ago, not long after Jenni Benson began the Lincoln phase of her teaching career, she helped her family make financial ends meet through a second job — by waitressing at a Lincoln eatery.
On occasion, she would serve meals to Association members at Lincoln meetings of NSEA’s Capitol District Board of Directors.
For the next three years, Benson will be seated at the head of the Association table serving members in a far different capacity. She began a three-year term as NSEA’s 119th president on Aug. 1.
From that humble start, Benson has taken what she calls a “very traditional route” through the Association’s leadership ranks. After teaching in Texas for several years, she returned to Nebraska and joined the staff at Lincoln’s Huntington Elementary School. She became a building rep, soon advanced to the Lincoln Education Association Board of Directors, then became LEA vice president and president.
As LEA president, she won a seat on the NSEA Board of Directors, and in 2014 became NSEA vice president. That route to the top gave her a solid understanding of Association operations.
“I’m not saying you have to take that route, but if you do you learn everything there is to learn about the Association,” she said.
“Working with past presidents was my way of learning, as well,” she said. “I worked with some very good role models who helped me along the way.”
The Paper Contract Trail
As a child growing up in Sutherland and North Platte, Benson never dreamed of a teaching career. Outside of school, those role models did not exist in her world. Her father managed a Sutherland grain elevator for more than 40 years, and after high school Benson earned an associate of arts degree at Mid-Plains Community College.
“I still didn’t know what I was going to do when I grew up,” she said.
She worked at an insurance company and then, in a fateful turn, took a job as a paraprofessional at an early childhood center. That experience combined with seven summers working at a camp for children with disabilities to turn her thoughts to teaching.
“I found I liked working with special needs kids,” she said.
After a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and special education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, along with a wedding ring, a job opportunity for her husband landed Benson and her family in southern Texas. There, she taught in Austin, then Harlingen and Edinburg.
During her second year at Harlingen, Benson was asked and joined the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA). That was B.C. – before computerization – and she signed a paper contract that clearly stated her annual salary.
Halfway through the school year, she was called into the superintendent’s office and told that she had been placed on the wrong step and was being paid too much. She would have to repay $200 per month until the error was corrected.
Benson’s first call was to TSTA. In short order, the superintendent reached out to Benson and said he had been in contact with TSTA. She would not have to make up the overpayment, but would be placed on the correct step for the following year.
“I was OK with that compromise,” said Benson. “That was my first real interaction with the Association, and it was a powerful experience.”
‘A Much Better Teacher’
Benson’s first teaching job at Austin had been in a self-contained middle school classroom working with children with disabilities. The classroom had 16 students and just one female. She said they were tough kids in a tough neighborhood. Her schools at Harlingen and Edinburg were high-poverty along the southern border of Texas.
“My teaching experience in Texas made me a much better teacher,” she said.
After seven years and three children, the family returned to Nebraska. They landed at Lincoln in 1994 and Benson joined the Huntington team. At LPS, in addition to Huntington, Benson has taught at Hawthorne and Maxey elementary schools and, most recently, served as a resource teacher at the LPS Career Academy.
Benson has also worked hard outside the classroom. She has served as a member of the LPS Strategic Planning, Facilities Advisory, and School Bond, and Curriculum committees.
A Fast Start
During her two terms as president of the Lincoln Education Association, she collaborated with LPS, the Malone Community Center, Community Learning Centers and the United Way on an initiative to engage a broad cross-section of the public in a discussion about how all students can succeed in school.
The goals included exploring how the community can work together more effectively on behalf of all students. The project was funded by a National Education Association grant.
Benson has gotten off to a fast start in her first few weeks, meeting with newspaper, radio and television outlets and getting to know members across Nebraska. She will soon settle down to the focused work of serving members.
“I am truly looking forward to the next three years. Serving members will be my pleasure.”