TEACHING TO LEARN

TEACHING TO LEARN: Shael Polakow-Suransky, alum and president of Bank Street College of Education, talks about the process of shaping a great educator. ‘We teach Teachers to find the strength in each child, rather than to focus on their weaknesses. And we use the same philosophy to train our Teachers,’ he said.

Like many schools, Bank Street serves hundreds of children from kindergarten through eighth grade until 4:30 p.m. from September to June. At that point in the afternoon, instead of locking up the building, the school’s staff moves around tables to set up for its next arriving students: prospective Teachers.

Founded in 1916, the Bank Street College of Education, located in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, prepares educators to work in schools and beyond. The college was founded based on the ideas of education theorist John Dewey, with the goal of studying how children learn and incorporating child development into educational practices.

The institution’s Graduate School of Education, which serves about 750 students, offers educators programs in Teacher preparation, educational leadership and Child Life practice, which trains the future Teachers how to work with children in health-care settings.

‘Find Their Strengths’

“We teach Teachers to find the strength in each child, rather than to focus on their weaknesses. And we use the same philosophy to train our Teachers,” said Bank Street’s president, Shael Polakow-Suransky, who graduated from the school in 2000 and served as Chief Academic Officer of the city Department of Education from 2011 to 2014.

Or as Carmen Alvarez, vice president for special education at the United Federation of Teachers and a Bank Street alum put it: “The Bank Street ethos is, ‘These kids can learn; I’ve got to find a way in.’”

While some programs offer just weeks of student teaching, Bank Street’s graduate students undergo a year of supervised fieldwork and meet in groups of six to eight with their advisers weekly.

‘Intensive Support’

“When you go through a program, there’s a lot of theory but not a lot of hands-on practice. At Bank Street, there’s a lot of intensive support,” said Mr. Polakow-Suransky, who worked his way up from teaching history and math in city public schools before becoming the first Principal of Bronx International High School in 2001. He later served as the education aide under Chancellors Cathie Black, Dennis Walcott and, for her early months in office, Carmen Fariña.

Ms. Alvarez said the 430-student School for Children’s location on the same campus sets Bank Street apart from other training programs. “If the Department of Education could do the same thing to train its Teachers, it would be a game-changer,” she said.

About 65 percent of the Bank Street School for Children’s Teachers are alumni of the graduate program, and many of the school’s Assistant Teachers are currently in the graduate program.

“A lot of Teachers consider Bank Street Ivy League,” Ms. Alvarez said. “It’s not about testing, it’s about how young people learn.”

Rigorous Standards

The admissions process is “rigorous,” Mr. Polakow-Suransky said, with applicants needing a 3.0 GPA in an undergraduate degree, an in-person interview, written application and an entrance exam. Applicants seeking their initial certification can take the GRE, MAT, ACT or SAT for their entrance exam, while those seeking professional certification or applying to a leadership program must take the GRE or MAT.

Maritza MacDonald, Senior Director of Education and Policy at the American Museum of Natural History, which partners with Bank Street’s Leadership in Museum Education program, stressed that the selection process is a large part of what makes Bank Street excel. “Every single person is interviewed. I don’t think they would accept someone simply because they scored highest on the GRE,” the Bank Street alum said.

Although students can attend part-time, for one year of the program they must attend school full-time. But since classes are held in the evening from 4:45-6:45 p.m. and 7:00-9:00 p.m., this allows Teachers to work during the daytime. Prospective students who are currently teaching also need a letter of recommendation from their Principal.

A Long-Term Mentor

“Bank Street takes extreme care of who you are and who you want to be as an educator,” Ms. MacDonald said. Both she and Ms. Alvarez said they never felt alone throughout the training process, particularly because of the weekly adviser meetings where they connected with other students to discuss issues that came up in the classroom. Ms. MacDonald said her adviser served as her mentor long after she graduated from the school’s Educational Leadership program.

“I called my adviser every time I got a new job for 15 years after I left,” she said.

Mr. Polakow-Suransky graduated from the Educational Leadership program’s Principals’ Institute, which trains educators for Principal, Vice-Principal and Superintendent roles.

“We want schools to succeed, but if a Teacher goes to a school and that school’s leader doesn’t get Bank Street’s ethos, it won’t work. That’s why training principals is so important,” he said. Almost 100 city school Principals graduated from Bank Street.

Key Pre-K Player

Bank Street has helped more than 6,000 city Teachers set up classrooms, and the college has been a guiding force in shaping the city’s schools beyond training its educators: in 2014, it began working with the city to develop Pre-K For All’s math program “Building Blocks,” which involves interactive math and play instead of worksheets.

“Bank Street has been a particularly strong partner in the rollout of free, full-day, high-quality pre-K for every four-year-old in the city that wants a seat,” said Will Mantell, a spokesperson for the DOE.

The college also plans to start a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) program for educators who want to teach immigrant students. “There’s a big need for ESL Teachers; the city doesn’t have enough of them. Only a third of immigrant students graduate on time,” Mr. Pol­a­kow-Suransky said.

The ethos, unique programs and intense training at Bank Street all make a difference in training quality educators, Ms. Alvarez said.

“There’s no Harry Potter wand to become a good Teach­er. If you really want to have a solid Teacher, you have to invest in them,” she said. “It takes three to five years—it doesn’t happen in quickie courses. It just doesn’t.”

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