Award-winning Educator Invests in the Social Emotional Sides of Teaching

Benjamin Walker

James M. Loy, Miami University

Startups tend to attract people who seek new solutions to old problems, and those with the drive to make change happen. But they are not always interested in revolutionizing business or technology.

Because for Benjamin Walker, it’s about transforming education.

A new recipient of Miami University’s prestigious 18 of the Last 9 award, and a Miami graduate with a degree in teacher education, Walker is a professional educator in Chicago, where he’s recently become involved with a social startup called the Academy Group, which accelerates the educational experience for students of struggling communities.

Investing in future potential

The Academy Group helps students, mostly those of color, overcome the opportunity gaps that stem from a long history of socioeconomic oppression and systemic disenfranchisement. 

“In other words, we need black and brown business leaders and entrepreneurs who can step up to lead in their communities, and be a force for social good,” Walker says. “We aim to help these brilliant and resilient young people become the leaders that not only have great jobs, but create job opportunities for their home communities.”

Through an expansive new academic mentorship model that unfolds over a 14-year timeline, the Academy Group follows young people from 4th grade through college. The idea is to make a long-term investment in these students, and those who meet the program requirements are guaranteed jobs after college – either through one of the program’s many corporate partners or by gaining the knowhow to start businesses of their own.

To prepare for this future, the Academy Group provides a host of educational and career-readiness support that occurs outside normal school hours. In the afternoons, on weekends, and even throughout the summer, students take a rigorous set business, justice, design, wellness, and leadership courses, which is where Walker comes in.

He teaches an asset-based leadership class called “The CEO of Yourself.” Co-created by Walker and his colleague Jawann Pollard, it shows students how to build positive habits and develop a sense of self that is intentional and evolving.

“We help them, for example, see that their block and their neighborhood and their identity are assets and the reasons for which they will be successful,” he says. “Rather than the reasons despite which they'll be successful. So it's just a wonderful class, and an amazing organization that's doing great work. I feel so excited that I'm in the first wave of teachers for the Academy Group.”

Since joining the organization, Walker has helped drive this progressive new educational model. He’s helped many disenfranchised young people realize their true potential. His students have already found his course to be “incredibly transformational.”

And this isn’t even his full-time job. 

Alongside the Academy Group, Walker also serves as a math teacher for Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, where he’s also trying to advance education in other ways.

Only as good as your relationships

Ben Walker 18 of the Last 9 recipient In 2015, Walker won the Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction award for his contributions to the field. More recently, he was also selected to direct Walter Payton Prep’s first advanced studies program, which offers additional academic opportunities for students with exceptional potential.

“We describe them as incredibly compelled and compelling students who are excited about pursuing an independent course of study,” Walker says. “They write a proposal during their junior year, and then I give them feedback in their proposals, ask them to revise, and then they come back with a plan of study for their entire senior year.”

One student, for example, is studying the physics of figure skating and creating a series of companion videos to encourage middle school-aged girls to pursue STEM fields. Other students are exploring zoology, microbiology, childhood behavioral development, and more.

In all, Walker currently oversees 22 of these projects. And that’s in addition to his regular math classes.

But whether he’s helping an advanced studies student design a project around lake ecosystem plant life, or helping Academy Group students become future community leaders, or just teaching an algebra class after lunch, there is a common theme that runs throughout his entire approach.

“You're only as good as your current relationships with your classes,” he says.

However, building the kinds of relationships that Walker tries to achieve requires more than simply getting know students. It’s also about, he says, moving beyond the traditional teacher-as-authority model by putting the “human side of the child first.” 

That means understanding and acknowledging the different identities that each student brings to class. It’s means caring about their academic performance, as well as their social emotional well-being.

And it’s about creating a safe space where students feel valued, where they feel comfortable taking intellectual risks, and where they feel able and willing to bring their best self to class every day.

“If I can create this environment,” Walker says, “where they feel they're a part of something bigger than themselves, where they feel accountable to the values of the community, and feel accountable to the learning, and they feel like they have the power to hold themselves and one another accountable, then I find that to be successful every time.” 

Benjamin Walker also recently appeared on an episode of the Reframe podcast, where you can hear more about his work and philosophy as an educator.