Bene Webster proudly describes herself as a former “nut” — a quality that she always found helpful when dealing with some of the behavior problems in her third-grade classroom in New Orleans.
“When I was teaching … it was common to hear teachers and administrators talking about ‘problem kids’ or kids who are ‘nuts.’ As a former ‘nut’ myself, I have always felt deeply protective and committed to guiding those students to find success and understand what it really means to be themselves,” says Webster, noting that she would intentionally load her classroom with the “misfits and wild ones,” and work to ensure their success. “I found that giving my students more freedom and autonomy, not less, resolved a lot of what others perceived to be behavior problems. It is easy to forget that kids are human beings, and at the end of the day they want to be free and able to be themselves just as much as the rest of us.”
Webster’s goal to help “troublemaker” students find their space in the classroom led her to HGSE’s Human Development and Psychology (HDP) Program, where she dedicated herself to researching and better understanding how to create schools that “allow students to really be free.” Over the course of the year she has focused on the school-to-prison pipeline and its origins in elementary schools, social emotional learning, school culture, and teacher training in developmental psychology and trauma, discovering new strategies and ways of thinking along the way.
“I now see there are so many angles, inputs, and ways to create the change I’m seeking, and I think that’s been really huge for me,” Webster says.
“HDP is delighted to give the Intellectual Contribution Award to Bene Webster this year. She raised everyone’s game,” says Senior Lecturer Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of HDP. “As her peers put it, she ‘inspires,’ ‘challenges others and herself,’ ‘pushes for new perspectives,’ ‘speaks up when it’s right and steps back when there’s place for someone else to shine,’ and ‘pushes for clarity and depth in classes.’ It was a joy to have her in the program, and we thank her for the many powerful ways she has lifted our community.”
Webster will be recognized with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Human Development and Psychology at Convocation on May 23. Here, she discusses her year at HGSE and her life in education.
What is your ideal job in education?
My dream job is to work as a coach with schools and districts to evaluate and change school culture. Often teachers who are equipped with strong pedagogical teaching skills, lack the background in psychology and trauma to purposefully serve their students. While practices such as “cold-calling” or “no opt out” work for many students, they can also be immensely triggering or anxiety-inducing for others.
I hope to work with schools to better equip leaders and teachers with the skills and knowledge base necessary to make school an engaging and safe experience for all kids.
How did you stay inspired throughout the year?
I repeatedly asked myself questions like, “Why did I do this?” and “Who is this for?” Reflection is key. I connected and gained more from my course work and various internships when I was able to reflect on the why behind it all. Although going to graduate school is a very selfish act (it literally is a time of life that is just about you) at the end of the day, the decision to come to HGSE wasn’t really about me. Yes, it benefits me immensely and my experience here has changed my trajectory in education, but I am educating myself further, so I can more effectively give back to my students and to the communities I care about.
What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program?
Try and always say “yes.” It’s not always possible, but push yourself to say yes to new opportunities, friends, and challenges. You’ll gain the most out of your time here that way! On the flip side, but of equal importance, don’t forget to take care of yourself. A healthy happy mind and body lead to more productivity.
What will you change in education and why?
I will contribute to a radical change in the way that we as a society think about kids and ability. I will dispel the myth that young students are only moderately capable of creating change and doing great things. I hope that with time our society will stop labeling active and demanding students as troublemakers, bad kids, or defiant. We as adults must realize and accept that our obsession with compliance and control in school stifles innovation, freedom, and joy in students.