Educators are often considered the teachers you see in and out of the classroom, standing in front of 20 students, lecturing, teaching, and more than likely a little praying that the students are grasping what they are attempting to teach. That is where many educators start and finish. Not so with this week’s teacher feature. Steve Benton started his trip through education at the age of 19 when he was a student at Chipola College and began driving a school bus for the Jackson County School system.
That is where Benton’s career began but where it ends is yet to be told. Benton moved from the driver’s seat of the bus to the classroom. From the classroom, he settled into an assistant principal’s position, with his next step behind the principal’s desk. Oddly, Benton spent very little time behind the desk. Following some time in Alabama, Benton returned to seek the office of superintendent in Jackson County and won his election in 2012.
As a principal in the 90s at Marianna High School, he was visible from the early morning duty hours until well after the lights were turned off on a Friday night at Bulldog Stadium and the last car left the parking lot. Same was true of baseball, basketball, you name it.
Equally as important to Benton was the student’s success in the classroom. Benton was as visible in the classrooms as he was in the various sporting arenas. Benton was there with “Congratulations, great job,” for classroom excellence as quickly as he was for the go-ahead touchdown or a player’s first homerun. Academics and sports both held a piece of his heart, along with the fine arts and FFA and agriculture. Benton saw each area impact students and knew the importance of a well-rounded program. Perhaps, that is why his last ‘assignment’ was as superintendent of Jackson County Schools. He worked tirelessly balancing a budget to include all aspects of education. He implemented art programs in more schools than when he took office. Benton was an ever-present teacher, administrator, and superintendent.
His tenure at MHS will not soon be forgotten. When he was principal at the ‘old’ Marianna High School, the teachers and staff ate at a corner table of the lunchroom with the students. There would be administrators and school resource officers on duty as well in the lunchroom. One day as told by a coach at MHS, “There was a student acting up and he continued to get louder and louder and more disruptive. Mr. Benton sat there eating his lunch and as the kid got even louder, he called the SRO over to the table where we were eating and said to him, ‘Go get that kid, cuff him and take him out of here till I get done with my lunch.’ The officer did as he was told and I don’t ever remember another kid acting up in the lunchroom. Yes, sir his methods were very effective and always fair.”
Another student tells a different side of Benton, “We had a bully of sorts at school, every school has them. One day this kid’s walking down the hallway and just walks up to a much smaller kid and shoves him with his body into the lockers. The kid is obviously embarrassed but doesn’t say anything, keeps on walking. Right down the hall I saw Mr. Benton and he was taking it all in. I figured that kid was fixing to get called in to the office for sure. The bully never saw Mr. Benton, he was busy looking for his next ‘nerd’. As he got close to Mr. Benton he was looking across the hallway and Mr. Benton took one step to the left and the kid walked right into him. Now, Mr. Benton wasn’t a small man and you could tell he was pretty stout so when that bully hit him head on without any warning, he bounced off him and onto the floor he went. Mr. Benton reached out his hand to him, pulled him up, and said, ‘Sorry man, you okay?’ The kid looked at him like he wanted to say something else but just said, yes, sir and walked away. I couldn’t help but have a whole new respect for that man that day.”
Benton left the office of superintendent in November 2016 following his defeat by Larry Moore on his re-election bid after 48 years of service to education. Benton says of his times, “I’ve spent my entire adult life working with students, teachers and parents. In 44 years of service, I have taught, coached, driven a bus, and become an administrator.” Benton married Jerri Gordon Benton, who is an art instructor at Marianna High School.