4th-grade teacher Brenda Kennedy has been a constant force at Franklin Elementary School. Once inside her classroom, you can instantly see the learning, collaboration, and support that has been happening for generations.
Kennedy has been creating this environment since she started at Franklin in 1991. Just ask her longtime classroom volunteer John Benka. He’s seen her impact first-hand.
“There are no invisible students in her classroom,” said Benka. “Fourth graders can be shy, reserved, questioning their own talent. She knows every kid in the class, every kid is visible, and she doesn't have to wear glasses, you know what I mean? She knows the kids.”
The longtime Franklin teacher has watched 32 school years come and fade into summer, yet this one offers a new challenge…saying goodbye. Kennedy is soaking up the final days of the year and her career before she heads into a well-deserved retirement.
Before departing, Kennedy, as she has done with countless students in the past, made sure that Benka felt acknowledged and appreciated. Because he, too, is a mainstay at Franklin. Twice a week for 12 years, without fail, Benka is volunteering in Kennedy’s classroom.
“I really, really do appreciate him. You know, I don't know what I would have done,” said Kennedy.
“Often, if you have a volunteer or a teaching assistant, they’ll be like xeroxing papers or grading papers. I don’t need Mr. Benka to do that. He works with children, and that’s what his purpose is when he comes in, to get to know the kids,” said Kennedy. “He sits with the kids, gets to know the kids, and helps the kids become better students. That's the world to me, like, that's what I want when Mr. Benka comes in the classroom, is to have that relationship with kids.”
Benka is a former Assistant Superintendent in District 207 and the father of beloved Tim Benka, who recently retired as an assistant principal at Emerson and now works as a teacher’s assistant in the same building as his dad.
All that to say, Benka knows education and thinks the world of the kind of teacher and person Kennedy is.
“You’re going to bring me to tears with that question,” said Benka when asked about how special Kennedy is.
“I was thinking as I sit there, working with the kids, the path from a chair to her chair is unbroken,” said Benka passionately. “A student can come and seek her individual help, just by getting out of the chair and not having to raise a hand, walk right over, and she's got time for every student, no matter what the issue is, no matter what the question is, in her own unique, soft, wonderful way. She brings peace to the class.”
“I'm sure that every morning, parents are grateful to her for her having communicated with them by email every week, with the full disclosure of what the students are expected to be doing in a very graceful way,” said Benka. “If I were a parent of the fourth grade, how grateful I would be to know how I can help at home by virtue of Mrs. Kennedy sharing with me what her expectations are for the kids.”
“It's more than just school,” said Kennedy. “I'm at a basketball game watching my daughter, and here comes Mr. Benka down the hallway. You know, gonna come and cheer her on. Hopefully, that'll continue after I retire. I told Mr. Benka, ‘We will have to set up a time to meet for lunch, like once or twice a month, so I can make sure that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing and not doing what you're not supposed to be doing. You know, so to keep him in line.”
Through all the lessons and classroom adventures, the duo formed an inseparable bond built on trust, mutual respect, and a shared passion for nurturing young minds.
“She sees every one of these kids as growing from day to day,” said Benka. “They're never going backward for her. She always sees growth, no matter how hard the kid is working at it. But she always sees growth. Always. Always a positive attitude.”
“I really do appreciate his time and his effort, and the kids absolutely love him,” said Kennedy.
The nameplate on room 130 will soon be different, but the lifelong connections and the unforgettable mark of Kennedy’s guiding hand will be felt for many years.