Benson Gao (C’ 22) has gained a new perspective on education over the last five years—literally. After switching his major in the middle of his junior year and graduating from Penn in the fall, he is now a teacher.
“My kids are lovely,” he tells me, describing the high schoolers in his algebra 2 and chemistry classes. I can already tell that he’s a lovely teacher, too: He’s mild–mannered, patient, and doesn't take himself too seriously. I want to know more about Benson at the head of the classroom, but first we take it back to when he was a student himself.
Benson applied to college as a mathematics major, but found himself struggling in the higher level courses during his first and second years. Coming to Penn and realizing that he was now a small fish in a big pond, where everything was a lot more difficult, surprised him. “I don't think I was prepped too well for that,” he says, and I assure him that many Penn students experience that same culture shock.
In the middle of his junior year, Benson switched his major from “pure math,” as he calls it, to mathematical economics. He’d already taken econ classes that could count and enjoyed them as well, so the change felt like the best move, even if it was late in the game. Still, “it wasn't easy. I had to take four or five major classes every semester, pretty much all the time,” he says. The credit requirement for mathematical economics is higher than it is for math, so he and his academic advisor “definitely doubled down on classes.” It led to him needing to stay an extra semester just so he could complete one credit that hadn’t previously fit into his schedule.
I ask him which half was more difficult: his first and second years where he didn’t feel well–equipped for his courses, or jam–packing his schedule to complete a new major. “I think it was equally difficult but different,” he says, first reflecting on his time as a math major. The proofs classes were especially tough. “I took Math 360 which was okay, but Math 361 was a lot harder for me.” He elaborates that “Math 314 was probably the biggest reason why I switched majors. The averages were very low, like 30s and 40s.” He passed the class, but when he later recalled how “absolutely brutal” it was, he first started to think about switching.
He was actually almost done with his math major requirements, but when he withdrew from Math 241 (Calculus IV), he knew something needed to change.
What led to his decision to withdraw from the course? COVID–19 brought on its own slew of challenges: College just wasn't the same while learning through a screen, a sentiment that deeply resonates with me and my peers. “Things didn't really start to lighten up until spring ‘22,” he says. He also notes that the professor of the class encouraged him to withdraw—not because of his grades, but because he knew Benson wasn’t confident in the material. I appreciate this professor’s reasoning: It’s not a matter of being “good” or “bad” in the eyes of the teacher, but rather about one’s own belief in their abilities. If it doesn’t feel right, you don’t need to push yourself.
“That's how I made my decision,” he tells me. “I had to call my academic advisor to tell her the bad news. It's tough, but we move on to the next semester.” He took an easier course that still fulfilled the same requirements, and “everything worked out in the end,” he says.
I ask Benson if he felt more confident in his classes once he switched his major, even though he was on a stressful time crunch. I can tell by the way he describes the courses, even the math ones, that he was much happier: “I enjoyed some math classes a lot, like Math 340 was discrete math. It was a lot easier to understand. The professor was easy to work with, if you didn't understand something he would stay after class until you understood.”
He also really enjoyed his economics classes, even when they were difficult. “You have to take a grad level class for that major,” he tells me, and we agree that it’s a bit ridiculous. “But I did learn a lot. And actually a lot of the things I learned in class, I'm actually relearning now, because I've been trying to learn more about the financial sector,” he says. Post–grad, he’s been studying this on his own time, hoping to pivot in that direction in the near future.
Speaking of pivoting, I see this as the perfect time to steer the conversation back to his teaching job. I ask if he wanted to go into teaching initially, and Benson replies “not quite.”
“I think it's one avenue that I want to explore. And I'm still trying to figure out what I truly want to do. But this is good, this is something I enjoy doing in the meantime, while I want to figure out that path myself,” he says.
The best part of teaching, according to Benson, is hearing the perspectives of all the kids, and how they think differently. “I truly think that everybody has their own opinion and it really matters,” he says. He also loves the sense of community among his fellow teachers—”Every teacher is very welcoming, encouraging. And if you need help or support, they're always there to back me up. Especially that since I'm a new teacher.”
It might be a sort of meta question, but I ask what he’s learned so far from being a teacher. “My interpersonal skills have increased a lot. I used to be nervous when I presented about something. But when you do this, in and out every day, it just becomes more natural,” he says, and “it helps build confidence in all areas of life.”
I’m particularly interested in his teaching philosophy as someone who was so recently a student himself. “It's funny because my friends say, ‘Oh, you just left school to go back to school.’” Being that he’s still fresh out of college, and wasn’t in high school all that long ago, he makes sure to “let [his students] catch a break” and “set achievable goals.”
Reflecting back on his own experience struggling through a class, I ask what Benson would do if one of his students came to him with a similar issue. “Put down your pen and put down your pencil. Just listen,” he says. He wants students to slow down: “You're studying so hard, and you're memorizing this and that, but rather than copying down every note word for word and trying to memorize it, try to understand what it is that you’re doing.”
Benson is the reassuring teacher for his students that he needed in college. “You don't need to feel guilty about not learning something. You don't need to feel bad about telling me that you don't know something,” he says. “I'm more impressed by the students that bring up the issues that they have so then we can work on them together and ultimately succeed together.”
He would give the same advice to his younger self.