A teacher of teachers

POCAHONTAS – Not only has Helen Beneke been a teacher all her life; she spent many of her years training teachers.

Beneke will now draw on her experience to train other members of her district of Rotary International. She was recently appointed as district trainer for Rotary District 5970, which includes her Pocahontas Rotary club.

Beneke started her career as a first-grade teacher, but moved into special education. She then spent from 1975 to 2000 as a special education consultant for Area Education Agency 5, she said.

“I developed programs and coordinated services for students with special needs,” Beneke explained. “I also provided training for teachers and administrators of our region.”

Special education requires a certain skill set. For example, in one of her Sioux Falls first-grade classes, she had both general ed students and two special ed students.

“I had two 8-year-olds, it was their fourth year in school and they were in first grade. That’s because they were retained in kindergarten, and they were retained in first grade,” Beneke said. “For me, those two children were the meat of teaching.

“That’s what teaching was all about, to figure out how to break down concepts, and then build and link those concepts together. Because general ed kids, for the most part you facilitate their education. You have the materials, and you sequence it, and reinforce it. But my perspective is that special ed, that’s what real teaching is.

“I think mostly (people) think special ed teachers are more patient than other people. But I don’t think it’s that; I think you change your expectations.”

After she retired from the AEA, Beneke became active in the International Association of Special Education, and presented at biannual conventions in locations including Warsaw, Poland; Hong Kong, China; Riga, Latvia; Sligo, Ireland; and Scarborough, Trinidad and Tobago.

Beneke’s term as district trainer is for three years. She said she is still learning what all the position involves. She was sent to a training program in Pittsburgh in October, where new trainers met with more experienced ones.

Part of her job is to serve as chair of the district training committee, which handles all training for the Rotary district level. She will also support the governor and governor-elect in training club and district leaders, and determine district-specific methods for conveying key concepts, making necessary logistical arrangements, or conducting sessions.

She will also be part of the regional planning committee for the tri-state Presidents-Elect Training Seminar.

Beneke has been in Rotary for 25 years. She was one of the first two women to join the Pocahontas Rotary club the first year the international organization allowed women.

“I think the older Rotarians who had belonged to Rotary for decades, perhaps felt a little uncomfortable,” she said.

She remembered how one Rotarian brought her a cartoon of a family around a table with the man saying, “I think it’s time for the women to clear the table.”

“He brought that to me during rotary meeting. So I went home and got a mat and frame, and brought it the next week and put it on the wall. I just treated it as a joke,” she said. “But now, everybody’s used to it.”

She wanted to join because she liked the goals.

“I admired the goals of trying to make life better for people all over,” Beneke said. “Polio prevention has been a big push for decades for the Rotarians. Clean water is also another big push.

“I just thought it was an opportunity to be involved with an international organization. … I didn’t think about when I retire, having the opportunity to travel internationally.”

Though she’s retired from the AEA, Beneke currently works for Morningside College of Sioux City. She travels throughout the region to supervise special education interns, including one at the Fort Dodge Middle School.

In the local Rotary club, Beneke has organized a project bringing dictionaries to third-grade students for the last five years.

“They cost just over $2 apiece,” she said of the special youth dictionaries. “The nice thing about them is all the info in the back. They have information on all the states, and a world atlas, weights and measurements. … It’s a wonderful resource.”

The club brings dictionaries to students in the Pocahontas Area Community School, Pocahontas Catholic School, and Laurens-Marathon Community School. After the year, the students get to keep the books.

Beneke participates in other Rotary community projects and has twice served as club president. She also volunteers at the local movie theater, is a member of the community theater group Princess City Players, and is on the Hometown Pride Committee.