On the Job with… Jeff Benner, Principal, Hagersville Secondary School
As soon as Jeff Benner, Principal at Hagersville Secondary School, walks into the main office first thing in the morning, there are crucial issues to be dealt with and important decisions to make. Issues around student well-being and mental health, cyber security, and other pressing matters are all in a day’s work.
“It’s definitely not a monotonous job,” says Benner on the first Friday of the school year.
Chris Dennis, Office Coordinator at Hagersville Secondary, brings him up to speed on messages received after hours, and anything she’s aware of that could impact the school community that day. Benner hasn’t yet taken a sip of the decaf coffee in his Yeti travel mug.
It’s a typical day in the life of a school administrator, and it’s a new learning curve for Benner; it’s his first week in a new role at a new school. Benner served as Vice-Principal at Dunnville Secondary School for the past two and a half years.
“This is a very kind and patient staff who have been so willing to answer all my questions and work with ‘the new guy,’” he observes of his new school. “There’s a lot of heart and soul here.”
Benner might be new to the role of Principal, but the wider community he’s working within is one that he has a long history with.
Benner grew up in Fisherville, attending Rainham Central School and J.L. Mitchener Public School before graduating from Cayuga Secondary School. He then moved across the province to attend the concurrent education program at Queen’s University. He chose to return home to begin his teaching career, and was hired at Port Rowan Public School, teaching a Grade 7/8 class. It was then back to Haldimand County to teach at Cayuga Secondary. There were a few detours along the way – a two-year secondment as the Executive Director at the Ontario Educational Leadership Centre allowed for the implementation of the Minister’s Student Advisory Council. Once back in Grand Erie, he landed a job as Department Head of Special Education at Cayuga before continuing on his leadership journey, becoming Vice-Principal at McKinnon Park Secondary. West Haldimand General Hospital, where his mother spent decades working as a nurse, is now what he sees outside his new office window.
“I’ve always had supportive, empathetic mentors along the way – people who were great team-builders, and ensured I was able to develop and grow,” he says, adding that the advice of Jayne Chalmers, his Principal at Dunnville Secondary, has stuck with him. “Jayne always said, ‘if you can choose to be anything, choose to be kind,’ and I’ve expanded on that: kind to each other, kind to our community, and kind to yourself.”
At his desk, one difference Benner is noticing in moving from Vice-Principal to Principal is the number of emails has tripled, maybe even quadrupled. Money matters are on the to-do list today; the school’s annual budget needs to be submitted, which means examining past funding for each department line by line. There’s also an upcoming PD day and staff meeting to plan. While checking items off his to do list, his door is open and fellow staff members are invited to pop in with anything that comes up.
Vice-Principal Shannon Love appears with a number of items. She’s been working on registrations, dealing with attendance matters, strategies to re-engage students, and keeping on top of some communication with parents. They exchange information and their friendly banter makes it seem like they’ve been working together for decades, not four days.
There are lots of reasons to work through the lunch hour, but that wouldn’t be kind to oneself. Plus, Hagersville is one of only a few Grand Erie schools where the food in the cafeteria is prepared fresh that day by students in the Hospitality Specialist High Skills Major program. Benner meets up with Melissa Turner, Native Education Councillor, in the lineup and shares a few laughs while they await their food orders.
Now fuelled for the afternoon, there are more decisions to be made. The school’s various clubs and teams have big plans and hopes for this year, so finding and allocating resources is another new part of the role Benner is getting used to.
“It’s okay to not know everything, but you have to drive your work through the lens of what’s best for students, and always focus on that,” he says.
An energizing part of the afternoon involves a visit to the Special Education classes to introduce himself to students, and welcome them to their new school year. Each grade has had a welcome assembly during the first this week, but this classroom visit is a more inclusive way to personalize Benner’s welcome message.
Benner sees a lot of value in Grand Erie’s Multi-Year Plan, and in particular, its Equity indicator. “Success looks different for every student – different pathways, and different timelines,” he says. “For some, that might be the traditional four years of high school leading to graduation, while others may take different routes, but the main thing is to honour these individual journeys.”
There are a few other plans to put in place for upcoming meetings, but by the time 5 p.m. rolls around, it’s time to cue up another true crime podcast for the drive home, where Charlie, the miniature schnauzer/fur baby belonging to him and his husband Brad, will surely be waiting for dinner. Benner is also training for a 5k charity race this fall in support of the Ontario Educational Leadership Centre’s programming, and maintains some work-life balance with yoga, which he took up a year ago.
“At the end of the day, this work is valuable and it needs passionate people,” he says. “There are commitments of time, energy and stress that can deter people, but developing your personal resources is an important task to overcome that.”
Top right: Jeff Benner shows school spirit in Hagersville Secondary’s gym
Middle right: Benner and Native Education Councillor Melissa Turner grab lunch in the cafeteria