Don Benton still considers himself a teacher.
“I was kind of called to it,” Benton said. “It wasn’t something I planned — there was some intervention going on in my life, and I had no idea about it.
“A higher power guided me down that path.”
Benton, who lives in Hot Springs, was recently hired as the new assistant commissioner of research and technology for the Arkansas Department of Education. He officially started in his new role Sept. 17.
“When I was 27 years old, I had been in the teaching business for three years, and I was the district technology coordinator for the Hot Springs School District,” Benton said. “I was able to work in the early years of the state’s technology planning for schools, and Jim Boardman — who was in the position I am now — spoke to a group of us. And I thought some day I would like to be as highly thought of as Jim Boardman.
“He was not only a role model, but someone I aspired to be in the K-12 business at the state level. When I took the job at Henderson State, I was expecting to profess for the rest of my life and retire doing that.”
Following Eric Saunders’ resignation as ADE assistant commissioner, Benton said, he had a conversation with a colleague in passing about the position, and “they said I should throw my name in the hat.”
“It is something I dreamed of doing and thought of doing, but I just never really pursued it,” Benton said. “So I threw my name in the hat, and low and behold, I got the call to come meet with the commissioner. …
“… I never dreamed I would be in this position. When I looked at people in this position, I always thought very highly of these people. They were the smartest in the business, and to be called up is a tremendous honor for me.
“Hopefully, I will do well and make the state proud.”
Benton had served as an assistant professor of educational leadership at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia since 2009.
In an ADE press release, Commissioner Johnny Key said Benton’s “information technology credentials and reputation precede him.”
“From his previous work in numerous IT roles in the Hot Springs School District to his current effort as director of the Hot Springs Technology Institute and assistant professor of educational leadership at Henderson State University, Mr. Benton brings valuable expertise and perspective to the ADE team,” Key said.
“From my first conversation with Don, it was evident that he understands the state’s vision of transformation to a student-focused education,” said Ivy Pfeffer, Arkansas Department of Education deputy commissioner.
“Don’s experience in K-12 education as a teacher and technology coordinator, in combination with his higher-education experience in preparing educational leaders, positions him to be successful in his new role as he leads the Research and Technology Division at the Arkansas Department of Education,” Pfeffer said.
Benton said part of his duties as assistant commissioner is spending a lot of time making sure that the technology initiatives and the products the schools are utilizing work.
“We want to ensure that all of our educators from every walk of life not only have the tools, but the training and the skills that they need,” Benton said, “to make sure they are trained properly and have the knowledge at hand to make the best decisions as well. …
“… Technology in any form is not the end-all solution but merely a tool, and how we use that tool will determine how we impact the lives of our kids and families and our communities.”
Benton is originally from Barton, which is about 8 miles outside of Helena. He graduated from Barton High School in 1988 and from Henderson State University with a bachelor’s degree in 1994. He earned a master’s degree from Henderson in 2003 and an educational specialist degree in 2013.
“One thing I have learned about this organization in the short time I have been here is there is no shortage of people willing to help encourage and inspire and lead you in the right direction,” Benton said. “I am 8 days old here, and it is like jumping on a roller coaster in a tornado while trying to learn a foreign language — it is a very fast-paced world.
“We are responsible for so many decisions and laws. The top of all those decisions is the welfare of the students in the state of Arkansas, and that responsibility is as big as it gets. We have so many things going on at this level that I was not aware of, before coming on board. It is unbelievable the excitement and movement happening at ADE on such a wide scale.”
Chris Mahoney is director of technology for the Lake Hamilton School District and has known Benton for more than 22 years.
“Don is one of my best friends, but we also have a professional relationship,” Mahoney said. “It is hard to describe him to somebody who doesn’t know him, but he can go from having a great sense of humor to being very professional.
“He is a very caring person, and he’s a great dad and a great husband to his wife.”
Mahoney said Benton has made him a part of his family over the years.
“I have to throw in there that he is very smart, too, although he won’t admit it to it,” Mahoney said. “Don is perfect for this position because he has the experience in education and technology. …
“… I can’t think of anybody who would be a better fit for this position than Don.”
Steven Barber, who has known Benton for more than 30 years, said he believes Benton will do a good job in his new role as a result of his practical knowledge, along with his personal skill sets and communication skills.
“Don is the kind of guy who can talk to anybody,” Barber said. “He fits in well with a lot of different people, and anybody who talks to him feels like they have been lifelong friends — that is the kind of personality
“He likes to get things done and accomplish tasks. He is definitely a hard worker and is dedicated to every task he takes on.”
Barber works as a sales associate for White River Services and Solutions, an Arkansas-based technology provider in Batesville. Prior to that, he served for 23 years in education in the states of Texas and Arkansas as an administrator and teacher.
Benton initially started out as a classroom teacher but eventually became a technology director for the Hot Springs School District. He has also been the director for the Hot Springs Technology Institute for 23 of the 25 years that it has been in existence.
“When I was younger, I didn’t even want to be a teacher,” Benton said, “but things happen in life, and you are kind of guided down a path that you didn’t really expect.
“When I decided to become a vocational business-education teacher, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
After graduating from high school, Benton spent about six months in Europe, and when he returned, he initially wanted to be a forester. He visited the University of Arkansas at Monticello and said he liked the program.
“But then I visited Henderson, and I fell in love with it for some reason,” Benton said. “The town, the community — there was something about it. I fell in love with the whole atmosphere.”
Benton said that once he was at Henderson, he embarked on a role to become an accountant and even took some business classes. But after meeting with an adviser, a former vocational-education teacher, Benton looked into doing the same, and “it looked like something I would be excited to do.”
Benton said he likes working in education because it is an ever-changing field.
“There is always something new and something more exciting,” Benton said. “The challenges are there every single day, whether they are small or large.
“Every year that I have been in this business, there is something new and exciting that is coming around the corner.”
Benton said that even as a young man, he knew he never wanted to be stagnant but wanted to be moving.
“It keeps your mind working and keeps you going,” Benton said. “I also enjoy the camaraderie among my colleagues and the families I have had an impact on.”
Benton said one of the best parts of being in education is when a former student sees you, and they “want to hug your neck and thank you.”
“It does something to your heart that is very hard to describe,” Benton said. “It is an emotional attachment.
“When I think about some of my former students and to see them be successful, against all odds, it makes my heart swell with joy — that God put me in the right place and the right profession.”
Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.