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photo of a woman writing with a pen in a notebook
David Jacobson

On the occasion of International Women’s Day (March 8) and the remaining weeks of Women’s History Month, reflections abound on women’s achievements. While it is tempting to focus on the famous in politics, business, sports, and even space travel, everyday efforts also should shine.

In the world of Saint Thomas Academy that means spotlighting longtime faculty members Rebecca Benz, who teaches English, and Sonya Jaworski, who teaches science. Although the two face unique challenges in teaching an all-male student body – more to come on that topic later – they both impact students in ways that their male teachers cannot.

An image of Science Teacher Sonja Jaworski teaching

For example, Jaworski said, “having any female teacher balances out an all-male perspective. Sometimes I may comment on things that their other teachers would not comment on, and I think that’s a big benefit to the students.”

Being female also often helps in working relationships with Cadets’ parents, Jaworski said. “They’ve been very supportive over the years, especially when I talk to them mom-to-mom. When they find out I’m a mom, it helps them trust and value my opinions a little more. If I tell them their son is getting a little bit out of line or not reaching his potential, they are 100% with that.”

Added Benz, whose 21 years at the Academy make her the longest-tenured current full-time female faculty member: “I suppose there are ways in which my approach can be a breath of fresh air, because it’s different. And, there are kids who are starved for that. They want different perspectives. They want to understand their world and the diversity of opinions out there.

“I’ve been able to form some lasting friendships with students who are not necessarily the kids that everyone knew well, because they saw me as someone who could accept them for who they were, who could understand them even if they were not interested in sports, which is such a big part of our school. There are a lot of students I keep in touch with who at one point really needed a teacher who was willing to reach out to them in maybe a different way than their male teachers would.”

Both Jaworski and Benz often see the need to create new paradigms in how the Cadets view women. “Most of the females in these boys’ lives are their mothers, sisters and aunts,” Jaworski said. “Teacher is a very different role. I feel that it’s my job to educate more than to nurture. As a female teacher in an all-male school, they’re sometimes surprised that I’m not sweet and nice and kind and friendly all the time. Initially, in the beginning of the school year when students don’t know me, they try to see what they can get away with. They try to be funny or cute, but I just won’t tolerate it.”

An image of English Teacher Rebecca Benz teaching

Benz shared a similar view. “When I was 29, the boundary was ‘I’m not your friend, I’m your teacher. You need to be respectful of me.’ As I’ve grown older, I also have the mom piece: ‘I’m not your friend, and I’m not your mom.’ I always have to balance between nurturing and pushing the boys, and I don’t know if the men have to deal with that as much.”

Overcoming stereotypes is a critical – and not always comfortable – step that Benz and Jaworski must take in order to maximize their positive impact on students. “I think there may be an expectation that we’re somehow going to be meeker or milder than men,” said Benz, “When I think back on the women who have taught here, that is not the way things have been. In my case, I am a quieter person by nature, so I have to sometimes fight against the students’ perceptions, especially early in the year when they don’t know me very well. I have to set ground rules that the expectations are there whether or not I’m a loud voice. I have to set clear boundaries and continually enforce them.”

Jaworksi speaks plainly of her experience with that phenomenon and how she handles it. “I’ve been here 14 years now. Early on, a few students would challenge me with being rowdy in class, thinking that I wouldn’t say anything or discipline them. But they learned very quickly that I have no problem throwing kids out of my classroom if they’re misbehaving or giving them demerits as needed. I’ve caught students cheating and had one of them cry, thinking that I would feel bad, but I didn’t.”

After clearing the hurdles that these gender stereotypes can create, Benz and Jaworski contribute to cultivating the emotional and intellectual openness among Cadets that is a hallmark of an Academy education. For example, Benz’s 12th-grade AP English students are graded 20 percent on class discussion.

“When I first instituted that, I thought, ‘Boy, how is this going to work exactly?’ But it’s great. One thing we have to work out is making sure everyone is heard in discussion. In a boys’ school, a lot of things become a competition. This is where the emotional intelligence work comes in, recognizing that other people need to get into the conversation. 

“I always walk this narrow line between completely moderating discussion and taking away any of the organic feel of it or letting things devolve into a chaotic situation, where four or five guys take over. I try to stay out of things and let them talk, maybe occasionally challenge them on certain ideas. Sometimes I have to say, ‘It’s great that you’ve been in the conversation for a good part of the hour. Now let’s hear what a few other people have to say.’ I want to do that without hurting their feelings, because I still want them to take part next time.”

The Academy’s emphasis on brotherhood often entails Cadets having intense conversation on sensitive topics. Benz compared the environment to her experience in co-ed classrooms before she moved to the Academy: “It’s my experience that the boys are comfortable talking about all kinds of issues together, at least as far as my view from the classroom goes. In my past experiences in co-ed classrooms, it was often the girls who took the lead. But when you take away the girls, the boys will, in fact, speak and share their ideas even if they’re not sure it’s going to be the perfect thing to say. I don’t see the barriers to conversation that we might expect stereotypically from young men.”

Both teachers are quick to mention the support they receive at the Academy from male and female colleagues alike. “When I first started, I was often asked if I needed any help,” Jaworski recalled. “We’re very collegial. If I’m having problems with a student, I can find out from colleagues if there’s something going on at home, or maybe there’s a learning challenge that the student doesn’t want to share with me. Some students are more comfortable opening up to the male faculty, and I can find out the bigger picture. When I first started, Dave Ziebarth often asked if I had any issues or challenges, and I’ve turned often to Tony Kinzley and Mark Westlake.”

Benz recalled a specific challenge she faced and how her colleagues supported her. “My very first year here, I was struggling with a certain student. I just didn’t get him. He had a hard edge on him. And, you know, they don’t come with instruction manuals. I knew his schedule well enough to realize he had Dave Ziebarth for history. I went to Dave, and he gave me some background information on the student and his situation that just changed everything.

“Also, for about 15-16 years, I taught American studies with Doug Hoverson, and I can’t count the number of times he’s been supportive of me. Whenever I needed a perspective on someone we were both teaching, he was always there to provide his insight. Also, there were so many women in my first 10-12 years here, who were so important in supporting me, and who encouraged me at every turn.”

It’s a good thing they did, because female faculty serve a unique purpose in Cadets’ lives by helping them see women as role models and occupying positions of authority, Jaworski said. “That sends the message that when they are done with school and get to the workplace, there will be women who will be their bosses and managers. They’ll have to learn to respect the female boss and manager as much as the male, and when there’s a problem, talk to that boss or manager, just like in school where they talk to the teacher. Having female faculty members, they get some practice in that and learn how to approach the situation and not be intimidated.

“It’s important that the students have a lot of diversity in who is teaching them. Our different backgrounds on the faculty, male or female, young or old, from different parts of the country – or world, even – really give them a different perspective and help them see the bigger picture. When they leave us, they’re going to be outside the little bubble that is STA. It’s important for them to be exposed to many other points of view, and I think that female faculty are essential to doing that.”