Meet the faculty & staff at awakening seed school
Ashley Ruiz | Toddler 1s Lead Teacher, After School
About Ashley: This is Ashley’s eighth year working at the Seed. She has always found joy and laughter when it comes to engaging with children. She was very young when she learned how to take care of children and their needs in education. Since then, she’s come to learn that there is no greater feeling than to see the impact you have on the kids with whom you have grow close. Ashley is very excited to be the lead teacher in the Toddler 1s class, as well as help out at the front desk after school.
Emily Cleveland | Toddler 2s Lead Teacher
About Emily: Emily has lived in Tempe her whole life. She discovered her passion for becoming a teacher by interning as a teenager for many years at the Seed summer art camp. As an intern, she could not wait until she was able to become a teacher.
Education: Emily graduated from Tempe Preparatory Academy in the spring of 2016 and in spring of 2021 completed her associates degree in early childhood development at Mesa Community College. She will continue workin on her bachelors degree at Northern Arizona University. She is thrilled to be leading the Toddler 2s this year!
Free time: In her free time Emily enjoys hanging out with her friends, spending time with family, going on bike rides, and hiking.
Sarah La Benz | Early 3s Lead Teacher
Free time: Sarah enjoys board games, crochet, science & astronomy, puzzles, a good book, daydreaming about traveling, and being with close friends. And of course, being with her two girls and husband.
Erin Kelly | Preschool 3s Lead Teacher
About Erin: Erin is the mom of two grown children, Briana and Brendan. She has lived in south Scottsdale since she was nine years old. Her mom, sister, and brother all live within five minutes and her kids went to the same high school as she attended. Erin always knew she would work with kids, and once she observed a preschool class, she was certain that was the right path. She has always had a special love for teaching the 2s, but has taught every age of preschool at some point.
Education: Erin started taking early childhood courses at Scottsdale Community College right out of high school, took a break while her kids were young, and finished her associates degree once they were both in school. She has taken many extra training courses to continue her learning, as well as teaching some parent education classes. Erin is so excited to continue her adventures here as the lead Preschool 3s teacher. With her close to thirty years in the field, she was drawn to Awakening Seed because the school shares so many values.
Free Time: Erin enjoys shopping, movies, sleeping in, family time, and definitely the company of her little dog, Nala.
Deb Hopkins | Preschool 4s Lead Teacher
This is Deb’s 18th year as lead teacher in the Preschool 4s class. Her career at the Seed began the winter of 2004 when she was persuaded to assist in Mary Glover’s 4th/5th grade class. Her life at the Seed began when her children were young. Her son Hayden (age 22) and daughter Hannah (age 24), both proud Seed graduates, first attended the toddler class at age two, have worked at the Seed as summer interns and, her daughter Hannah was hired as an after school staff member in 2017. In her former life, Deb worked as curator for many years at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art where she planned, organized and curated exhibitions and wrote about art and contemporary artists such as James Turrell, Wolfgang Laib and others. Deb’s art background influences her multi-disciplinary approach to teaching, at times turning the classroom into an immersive experience. Over the years, the preschoolers have delved into an array of subjects including the Middle Ages, food and culture of the world, the Ice Age, the Amazon rainforest, space, and dinosaurs. The Seed is her family’s second home.
Education: Deb earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from the University of Arizona and has taught paper-making, book binding and photography to children and adults.
Free time: Deb has a passion for cooking, gardening, art, photography and yoga. She’s slowly learning how to play the guitar!
Mindy Bender-Webster | PreK Lead Teacher
About Mindy: Mindy, a native Arizonan, has always had a passion for working with children. At fifteen, she was an assistant teacher at her family’s dance studio and by eighteen was teaching and choreographing for her own dance classes. In 2003, as a senior at Mountain Pointe High School, she volunteered her afternoons working in classrooms at an elementary school. Over the next few years Mindy continued her hands-on training as a classroom assistant at The Chrysalis Academy, a private school for children with autism. In 2009, she became a certified yoga instructor and in 2010 started her journey at the Seed teaching physical education. She has since been the toddler after school lead, assistant in the Toddler 2s, Preschool 2.5/3s lead and is now the PreK lead teacher.
Education: Mindy holds a Child Development Associate credential through the Care Courses program.
Free Time: In her free time Mindy likes to spend time with her husband Alex and sons Easton and Remy.
Kerri Tornow | Kindergarten Lead Teacher
About Kerri: Kerri, who grew up in Michigan, is the Kindergarten teacher. She has been part of the Seed staff since 1984. That’s nearly 40 years of teaching academics and art to young children. Kerri enjoys children’s art and literature. Her focus is on providing a safe, happy classroom environment in which young children can explore their world and influence their own learning with rich oral expression, creative opportunities, purposeful experiences and strong social connections to their peers and teachers.
Education: Kerri graduated from ASU with a degree in art education and has an Arizona elementary certification with an early childhood endorsement.
Kerri is married to Roger. They have two sons, Andrew (33) and Aaron (29). Andrew is a graphic designer, happily married to his lovely wife, Nicole. Aaron has a degree in kinesiology and now works in medical sales. Both boys started their educations as Seed preschoolers and graduated from ASU. Kerri enjoys crafting, collaging, camping, hiking and kayaking with her family. She also adores her beagle, Dunkin. Kerri and Roger cherish spending as much time as possible with their 2-year old grandson, Carter, and are thrilled to welcome grandson #2 in late November/early December. Kerri loves her role as Nana and looks forward to sharing school days at the Seed with Carter this year!
Gabryella Behnke | 1st Grade Lead Teacher
About Gabryella: Gabryella is an Arizona native who grew up camping in the pines or at the lake most weekends. She always knew she wanted to be a teacher but felt that she finally found her true passion once she discovered the Seed. She feels fortunate to have found a school that provides such rich learning opportunities, both inside and outside the classroom. She finds joy in working with children, watching them learn and grow. She is inspired by their honest and open minds that are full of infinite creativity and possibility. She looks forward to continuing work and play alongside children throughout their learning experiences.
Education: Gabryella graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and an early childhood endorsement. She holds an Arizona teaching certificate and also has an SEI endorsement. She joined the Seed staff in 2017 as a teaching assistant, then assumed the lead position with the Early 3s in January 2018, before becoming the lead teacher for the 1st/2nd grade class.
Free Time: Gabryella enjoys traveling, camping, being outside, reading, and spending time with loved ones. She and her husband, Justin, love taking their two dogs on outdoor adventures, going on road trips over the summers, and having game nights with family and friends.
Bianca Lopez | 2nd-4th Lead Teacher
About Bianca: Bianca was born in California and raised in Arizona. She grew up in Tempe with her mom, dad, two sisters, and brother. She is the oldest of four. As a child she was quiet, enjoyed collecting stickers, and loved creating crafts with her mother in the hot Arizona summers. Bianca lives in Mesa with her husband, Shayne and their five-year-old son Zion.
This is Bianca’s fifth year as lead teacher, first in the Early 3s class and now with the 2nd-4th graders. She has worked in a public school setting for twelve years. She first discovered the Seed as an intern from Northern Arizona University, and interned in the Preschool 4s class. She fell in love with the Seed almost instantly.
Education: Bianca graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2018. She has a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and a certification for early childhood education.
Free time: On the weekend you can find Bianca trying new recipes, creating another Pinterest craft project, and decorating her planner.
Fiona Harpole | 2nd-4th Grade Lead Teacher
About Fiona: Fiona is from Boise, Idaho and moved to Arizona in 2018. She has always had a passion for working with children and is honored to be a part of the Awakening Seed community. She is overjoyed to have found a school that fosters curiosity, creativity, and self expression within its students. Fiona has a passion for outdoor education and believes that our Earth is the best classroom. She loves working alongside children and is incredibly grateful to continue to do so in the coming years at the Seed. Fiona will be co-leading the 2nd-4th grade class this year.
Education: Fiona graduated from NAU in December 2022, after student teaching in the 1st/2nd grade classroom for her final semester. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education with a minor in studio art, and currently holds an Arizona teaching certificate.
Hobbies: Fiona enjoys skiing, rock climbing, hiking and camping with her friends and family. She also enjoys creating art, particularly ceramics, in her free time. Fiona aspires to stay curious throughout her life, and to foster a love for learning within her students.
Stephanie Peyton | Resource Coordinator
About Stephanie: Stephanie has worked at the Seed for 22 years and has been the resource coordinator for fourteen years. She also has a wide range of experience teaching almost all of our grade levels. Stephanie has done extensive work with special needs children, especially those with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and visual impairment. She has presented her classroom model at several conferences sponsored by the Arizona Department of Education and works with the Seed teachers to support classroom management and work modifications for students with special needs. She has taught special education classes at ASU for pre-service teachers. She also serves on the board for the Foundation for Blind Children.
Education: Stephanie has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education focusing on curriculum and instruction. She is an Arizona certified teacher.
Free time: Stephanie and her husband, Justin, have three daughters. Sarah Beth, their oldest, is a sophomore at Coronado High School, and Hillary is in 6th grade at Ingleside Middle School. Their youngest, Catherine, is the last of the Peytons remaining at the Seed in the 3rd grade class.