Most people can say they have never savored the flavor of durian, a large, spiny fruit found in Malaysia. The fruit is banned on airplanes and in public places because of its horrendous odor, but the flavor is wonderful to the taste buds. Dr. Jean Benton, director of International Programs for the College of Education, had her chance to savor the spiny fruit when she lived in Malaysia for two years as a curriculum consultant for the Ministry of Education. She says it was one of her favorite things to eat while she lived there.
As delicious as the fruit may be, it was just one of the many unique memories she has of her time in Malaysia. Benton also worked with people of different languages, cultures and religions to develop programs. She also learned a lot about the tropical climate and the precautionary measures to be taken while living in Malaysia.
“I learned that black cobras lived under my house, and not to go out to pick fresh mangos and papayas in the backyard without protective gear to ward off the fire ants,” Benton said.
Aside from the fact that four-foot iguanas would welcome her at the door, Dr. Benton said she enjoyed meeting the people and learning more about their culture.
Benton also spent a year in Shanghai, China, as project director of a World Bank Technical Assistant Project. There, she retooled Russian foreign language professors to teach English as a foreign language. While living in Shanghai, Benton said she learned about the culture and history of China from her students.
Benton also has traveled extensively for recreational purposes, staying in a Buddhist monastery in Japan, harvesting oats in Sweden, bicycling through a snowstorm in the Netherlands and swimming with giant sea turtles in the coral reefs of the South China Sea.
When she isn’t sailing the seven seas, she is working diligently here at Southeast. After coming to the campus to teach in 1987, Benton has been involved with learning more about academically at-risk children across cultures, and researching comparative methods of teaching and learning in other cultures. Her courses range from “Philosophy of Education,” “Cultural Diversity in Education” to “International and Comparative Education,” just to name a few.
In addition to her work in the classroom, Benton has recently published a book entitled Using Action Research to Foster Positive Social Behavior. The book highlights the sociological approaches in examining the cause of violence in classrooms. It also includes successful case studies of teachers who created more peaceful classrooms.
As director of International Programs for the College of Education, Benton arranges for student teachers to spend a semester abroad to teach in classrooms. Currently, the College has programs in 49 countries, including special focus programs in Russian language and culture and teaching at-risk children.
Benton is currently responsible for a major international research project with the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education. The project is funded through the United States and European Union governments, and involves six universities from both countries. The project allows education majors to spend a semester abroad working to find effective ways to teach children at risk in various cultures and socio-economic groups. Currently the study includes European immigrants from North Africa, Turkey, Morocco, and other at-risk populations in Spain, the Netherlands, and Northern Ireland.
Benton says she has always loved learning and teaching others about knowledge, even as a young child.
“I have always had a strong desire to help others,” Benton explained. “What other profession, besides teaching, allows you to have a license to read and learn voraciously all the time, and get to share your ideas and knowledge with students?”
Benton said she looks at schools and educational institutions as agencies of inclusion where everyone’s talents and contributions are to be celebrated and valued.
“As educators, we have the ultimate job to seek out and help nurture the skills and talents in each and every student,” Benton said.
Benton said she likes to have her students participate in their own education, and does this by developing activities that are both practical and useful. She also wants her students to connect their lives as learners to their future lives as teachers. She says it’s a way to create a more conscious view of the educational process of learning and teaching for her students, while offering them a direction on how they can make a positive difference in the world.
Benton advises her students to be curious, to never stop learning and to not be afraid
to get out of the “comfort zone.”
“Take up the challenge to be a part of the infinite variety of cultures, languages and world views this planet has to offer,” Benton says.
In the words of Robert Frost, Benton said, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood....and
I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”