“I talked with a lot of different students to try to get input on what they love about Mr. Van. [This award] is not just coming from me; it’s from all of his students. You’ve really changed my life. Please continue teaching like you have.”
When Indian Hill High School student Gabe Oakes heard about Benn VanOudenallen’s economics class from a friend at another area high school, he just had to know what the fuss was all about. Word of mouth can be just as important in an educational setting as it is in any other service-based field and apparently, the social studies teacher’s reputation as a thoughtful, compassionate instructor during his time at Mount Notre Dame High School followed him to Indian Hill—his own alma mater—when he began teaching there in fall 2022.
“My really good friend that goes to his former school told me how great of a teacher he was,” Gabe says. “So I was like, ‘Alright, I gotta transfer in [to his class].’”
A week or two into the first semester of his junior year, Gabe switched to VanOudenallen’s microeconomics class, where he was intrigued by the way his teacher integrated class discussions with lecture topics.
“A normal class, for all kinds of schools, it’s just kind of the same way,” he explains. “It’s take notes, look at the curriculum, the syllabus…but his class was more of an experience. His class was breaking down things that would be difficult for other people to grasp.”
For instance, the teacher’s explanation of the 2008 recession gave the teenager a better understanding of the intricacies of that financial decline and how widespread it was in terms that he and his classmates could easily digest.
“He put up a video of two money experts talking about it, and he was on a whiteboard, drawing simple pictures relating to this,” Gabe recalls. “It was so interesting how he did it and it must have taken him forever. I have so much respect for that lesson because I had no clue. It’s difficult to teach that, but he taught it really, really well.”
This type of engagement, in conjunction with VanOudenallen’s care and dedication to his students’ interests outside of the classroom, is a winning combination for Gabe.
“He is as engaged outside of the classroom with the students as inside the classroom,” he notes. “I do a lot of different things. I am in football, baseball, theater. And it’s really teachers like him that help me support what I want to do. He is at every single sporting event. I’ve had teachers like before, but it also correlates back in the classroom.”
"The fact that I’m lucky enough to do something I love every day is a big piece of who I am, and I get to do it in my own community."
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” VanOudenallen says. “A lot of folks say, ‘I want to be a teacher,’ and it makes a lot of sense to me because when we turn 18, 19, 20, we know whatever professions our parents or guardians might have had. Maybe it’s uncles and cousins. And we’ve been around teachers our entire lives.”
However, his actual path to teaching began with a business degree.
“I took a weird route to the classroom,” he recalls. “I had interesting counsel from my father, who said, ‘You know, you can always teach. Why don’t you go get a different degree?’ [Teaching is] a valuable career and it’s worth doing but you’re not going to get paid a million dollars a year, so I think folks are sometimes hesitant to jump into education.”
He took his father’s advice as a contingency plan of sorts and after graduating from Indian Hill in 1994, he enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he majored in management and organizational behavior, but teaching was never far from his mind.
“I sort of took those [business] classes with a different mentality,” he remembers. “I knew that immediately after getting out of college, I’d have to start teaching. The way to teach if you don’t have a teaching degree was to take jobs that had you teaching.”
Without a teaching degree, VanOudenallen found opportunities that allowed him to gain classroom experience in a non-traditional way. He started with a volunteer stint with AmeriCorps, where he created an environmental education for middle school students in Adams, Massachusetts, before moving on to develop and teach economics and marketing skills to rural farmers in Guatemala as part of Peace Corps. He also served as a volunteer interpreter for the National Park Service, leading school group and visitor education at Wupatki National Monument in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Six years after graduating from Miami of Ohio, he earned his teaching certification from Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon, New Hampshire, setting him on the path to a full-time career as a teacher—a road he’s traveled for nearly 20 years now.
“What I was lucky enough to discover in taking that weird route is that I loved teaching enough to go back and get a master’s degree in it,” says VanOudenallen, who earned a Master of Arts in education with an emphasis in curriculum design and instruction from Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
He credits his graduate program at Plymouth with providing future teachers with the space to think outside of the box. One week, someone from The Juilliard School taught his class how to move within a classroom, using it as a stage; the next, a psychologist from Dartmouth College discussed how the brain worked in regard to learning.
“It was a marvelous way to, from every angle, come at teaching from a different perspective,” he notes. “I’m just kind of thankful that I had those opportunities to come at the classroom from a non-traditional route.”
"Benn possesses an extraordinary talent for making each student feel genuinely seen and valued."
VanOudenallen likens himself to “a thief” when it comes to explaining his teaching style. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery, and he openly admits that he often replicates the lessons of his favorite teachers, going so far as to quote Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” “There’s nothing I’ve done that I can’t go directly back to someone and say, ‘This is who I stole it from,’” he says fondly.
The two teachers from his past that he says he “channels” most often are his ninth-grade algebra teacher Dan Troia and his cross-country track coach Susan Savage.
“Dan Troia found a way to make algebra incredibly compelling,” he says. “It wasn’t flashy; it wasn’t anything crazy. It was just high energy, high connectivity to the students. And hilarious and self-deprecating. [He] taught in a way that pulled people in, and so to a great degree, I’m just stealing that philosophy.”
As for Savage—whom he now works alongside at Indian Hill—VanOudenallen notes that he tries to copy “her authentic celebration of progress.”
“She’s the only coach I’ve ever had in my entire life who so clearly would get excited not by the kid who did best, but by any kid who had a new personal best,” he says. “It’s such a guidepost for me in terms of how I share data with the kids, how I encourage kids to make mistakes along the way to enlightenment. Helping kids with academic tenacity is something that Coach Savage really helped me understand.”
In addition to his classroom work, VanOudenallen applies his teaching abilities to Indian Hill’s award-winning mock trial team.
“Something that truly sets Mr. Van apart as he coaches his students is his encouragement to make mistakes in order to grow,” says Jolyne Gunadi, an 11th grader and one of the team’s student attorneys for the statewide mock trial competition. “He always tells me that you must ‘break’ things before you might get it right and make a positive change. Even once you get it right, life is a continuous process of refinement, and Mr. Van’s openness to mistakes creates an environment perfect for his students to grow. It is amazing how much more growth I experience when the weight of ‘not failing’ is lifted off my shoulders because then, I can simply focus on continuously getting better.”
This past fall, VanOudenallen—who was on the first Indian Hill mock trial team back in the early ’90s—empowered Gunadi to lead a team of students to participate in the Yale Bulldog Mock Trial Invitational in New Haven, Connecticut. She handled the logistics and communication for the event as well as trained three new players who had never competed before. The team took fifth place.
“One of the big things that I learned was the balance between holding my team accountable while still creating a fun work environment,” Jolyne says. “This was also the first time in my life that I ever saw myself as a leader, and a huge part of this was because Mr. Van empowered me with his trust. I will forever be grateful for that experience and that was just one instance where Mr. Van’s presence propelled me to grow in some amazing ways.”
Lauren Richardson, who serves as the school’s technology/instructional coach, has worked closely with VanOudenallen as she coordinates lab classroom learning experiences for staff members. He’s one of the teachers that staff members visit to learn about instructional design and pedagogy, especially his use of the 5Cs in the classroom: Critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, communication, and character.
“His heartfelt approach goes far beyond their academic achievements, encompassing their personal interests, supporting their extracurricular pursuits, and offering words of encouragement in those fleeting, yet impactful moments between classes,” Richardson says. “This deep sense of care and understanding forms the cornerstone of the unique, nurturing culture in Benn’s classroom, creating an environment where trust thrives and students are inspired to explore and grow.”
"Inside the classroom, he helps push me and my grades, but most importantly, outside of the class, he is always supporting me and so many students by going to our games and shows, always with a smile on his face."
Richardson compares VanOudenallen’s teaching style to that of “a carefully curated concert setlist.” (It’s a fitting description for a former professional banjo player, who won the GRAMMY Museum’s Jane Ortner Education Award in 2021.)
“He keeps the classroom rhythm alive with activities transitioning every five minutes, engaging students through collaborative critical thinking, drawing, storytelling, and lively back-and-forth discussions,” she explains. “His ability to seamlessly integrate current events and real-world scenarios into his teachings is nothing short of inspiring. In his hands, economics—often viewed as intimidating—becomes a tapestry of relatable stories and tangible examples, woven into the fabric of students’ everyday lives.”
For VanOudenallen, feedback isn’t a one-way street; he’s able to learn about his students through the insights they provide in his classes and use that knowledge to fine tune his teaching.
“Each lesson, each interaction is an opportunity for Benn to refine his craft, to touch more lives,” Richardson adds. “His dedication to not just teaching, but learning alongside his students, is a testament to his unwavering passion for education and his profound impact on those fortunate enough to be his students.”
Gabe—who’s now in his senior year with plans to go into hospitality management after graduating—agrees, which is why he wanted to submit VanOudenallen’s name for the Honored National Teaching Award. “I talked with a lot of different students to try to get input on what they love about Mr. Van,” he says. “It’s not just coming from me; it’s from all of his students. You’ve really changed my life. Please continue teaching like you have.”
VanOudenallen says the best part about receiving the award is that the recognition is driven by students.
“It’s the kids basically given the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been through 8,000 lessons and what this person is doing is excellent,” he says. “That validation from the very people that you’re trying to influence is the most authentic and inspiring thing that I think we can really get as educators because deep down, you are trying to give those kids something that’s going to resonate. And those kids that take the time to write the letters, there’s so much they could be doing other than thinking about you. To know that you had enough of an impact for them to resonate louder than the cell phone, to resonate louder than the TikTok, resonate louder than Snapchat is very, very, very valid. It’s the fuel we need to keep fighting the good fight.”
Photography by Angie Lipscomb
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