It’s tough for Andrea Benkel to pinpoint her favorite part of her job as director of early childhood development at Summit School of Ahwatukee, so it’s surprising to hear that 10 years ago, it’s a job she never expected to have.
Benkel had been a preschool teacher for years, but when her youngest was 2 years old, she decided to be done with teaching full time and started working for Gymboree. It was while working there that she was introduced to “Aunt Kathy,” a family friend of one of her favorite toddlers who was about to graduate to preschool.
“A week later, Kathy Evans, who was preschool director at the time, called and said, ‘You know me as Aunt Kathy. I just came to your Gymboree class,’ ” Benkel said. “She said, ‘I wanted to talk to you about teaching at my school.’ ”
Benkel went to visit the school on a day when there was a big celebration going on and instantly she recognized many of the kids as kids she had taught at Gymboree. She began finding excuses to go back until she was hired as a teacher. Her first year teaching, the first name on her list was the name of the girl she’d taught in her last job who had introduced her to “Aunt Kathy.”
“It was the first time I walked into a place and thought I have the trust and the freedom to do right by these children and these families and I can advocate for them and I can create really trusting and healthy relationships,” Benkel said.
The climate of the school made her feel welcome right away and after her second year teaching there, she thought maybe some day, when her boss retired, she might want to become a director. That dream happened much faster than anticipated when her boss was promoted and asked her to take her spot.
“At that time, she had the faith in me that I needed to have in myself,” Benkel said. “It’s a privilege. I work with remarkable families, and these kids are my whole world.”
Over the years, Benkel has had the opportunity to watch kids enter the school at 3 years old and stay at Summit until graduation. Her job is to supervise the preschool program and kindergarten, which allows her to help kids and parents as they transition from one life stage to the next. She’s well-known and well-liked by the students who’ve grown up with her around.
“There’s really no way I can put it into words,” said Alina Mencinger, 14, the little girl Benkel has taught since her Gymboree days. “She’s just the best. She makes every kid feel special. She can make any kid smile. She knows how to deal with every problem. She remembers her students for years to come, stays connected with them. She had such an impact on me when I was in preschool that I kept coming back to visit.”
Benkel also works with First Things First and National Association for the Education of Young Children on the local board to try to make sure opportunities extend to every child. She travels all over the country learning about new ideas for teaching and research being done on early childhood development.
As a director, Benkel said she tries to be reflective of her time teaching.
“I’ve been teaching for more than 25 years,” she said. “I never thought I would have the opportunity to continue making a difference and have more and different kinds of impacts in the lives of children. I owe it all to Summit. It was the first situation where I was brought on and thought of and treated as a professional from the moment I walked in. I felt so valued as a person.”
It’s that sense of value Benkel tries to pass on to the kids at Summit. What she loves best is being the safety net for a shy 3-year-old and watching them go on to kindergarten — knocking on her office window when they have a project they’re excited to show her — and then years later coming to her again when life in seventh grade has gotten hard and they just need a hug.
“They’re 3 years old again when they come in here,” she said. “They can be the coolest kid anywhere, but they still want to come and they still need a hug and to know somebody loves them just because of who they are. … I don’t think most people in the world get that privilege of being present in the life of a child.”
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