Recently, Alexis Armistead, co-teacher at Compass Charter School in Brooklyn, Class of 2023 student in Bank Street’s Teaching Literacy Program, and new Student Associate Trustee on the College’s Board of Trustees, sat down with Amy Stuart Wells, our new dean at Bank Street Graduate School of Education. In the conversation below, Alexis and Dean Wells explore a range of topics, from why they both joined Bank Street to Wells’ personal journey in the field of education, as well as her perspectives on the challenges educators face today and reflections on the most impactful lesson learned from a student.
Alexis: I bet it’s exciting to start your new position as our dean. What drew you here?
Amy: Bank Street’s Graduate School of Education, more than any other school of education that I know of, has a central focus, mission, and passion for preparing the best educators and child life specialists in the field. The Bank Street graduate faculty are steeped in the research base and best practices related to child development, brain science and learning theory, and the social and emotional needs of children. This expertise is what makes Bank Street synonymous with proven progressive education strategies and techniques, the pedagogical approach most deeply aligned with social science and scientific research on how children learn and the centrality of culture to learning. When we think about strategies for reclaiming the narrative and public discourse on what constitutes “good” education and the type of coursework needed to prepare professional educators and child life specialists for the 21st century, Bank Street will be a key player in that effort, as an institution that has stood for excellent teaching, learning, and leading for more than 100 years.
As a sociologist, I am excited to be leading the Graduate School at this critical time in our nation’s history. I have studied both the macro political and social contexts in which we are living, and I have directed micro-level professional development experiences for educators who want to push back against a politics of fear and hate to support all of their students. I have studied and taught classes on the sociology of knowledge and examined the research in the sociology of professions, both of which tell us how to reframe the field of education in public discourse. I also know how the very best progressive education strategies align with the very best anti-racist strategies to create educational experiences grounded in meaningful relationships, love, and care.
I know there is a growing interest in and acceptance of both progressive and anti-racist educational strategies among educators—particularly early career teachers and those considering teaching as a profession—and that Bank Street is the place where these educational movements align to provide a new vision of graduate education and professional development that is desperately needed in both public and private education in the US and abroad.
How about you? Why did you choose Bank Street for your graduate education?
Alexis: I had a teacher in my high school, Mr. Hill, and he (and just about everyone else) knew I wanted to be a teacher. I never had any classes with him, but because of clubs and sports after school, I got to know him. When I was a senior and everyone was talking about choosing a college, Mr. Hill said to me, “Wherever you go, make sure you also go to Bank Street after.” He told me there was “really nothing quite like it.” You see, Mr. Hill had attended Bank Street, and he told me so many stories about the kind of educator Bank Street helps you become. So, fast forward a couple of years and I found myself remembering Mr. Hill’s words. Here I am, and wow, was he right!
How did you get started in the field of education?
Amy: My mother was an elementary school teacher, and I grew up hearing stories of her students and the positive impact she had on their lives. I also had several wonderful teachers myself who had a similar impact on my own life. Thus, from an early age, I experienced at the micro level what Nelson Mandela explained about education at a macro level: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Thinking about the power of education to change the world, coupled with my drive to better understand and address the causes of social inequality, I was drawn to the fields of journalism and sociology, but always with a focus on education. Thus, I worked for many years as an education reporter and then a sociologist of education examining the role schools play in simultaneously creating greater equality through their impact on individual students while all-too-often perpetuating inequality through their uneven resources and opportunities. My reporting and research on these issues fueled my passion to support the development of educational systems and practices that alleviate inequality and prepare all our children for a multiracial democracy.
Alexis: At this fall’s convocation, you reminded us that at the beginning of each academic year, we, as educators, forge new relationships and commitments and we celebrate the power of education to transform the world. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing educators today?
Amy: Great question! I see immense political challenges to not only the teaching profession, but also to the entire education system in the US. Currently, there is a small but vocal minority of people who are curtailing children’s access to important texts and who are preventing teachers from teaching about different perspectives on American history in particular. These are attacks on the professionalism of teachers and the free speech vital to a democracy, and they have major implications for schools of education in higher education institutions—not only for enrollment in our teacher education and education leadership programs, but also for the legitimacy of the knowledge base that guides educators in making day-to-day decisions about how to teach and support their students. Education is a profession because of this knowledge base, and thus, it is no wonder that those who want to defund and dismantle our public education system are attacking the value of that knowledge base.
But at the same time, the vast majority of parents want their children to be taught by professionals steeped in a deep understanding of child development, learning science, and pedagogical strategies. No one knows better than parents the importance of having well-trained and professional teachers in their children’s classrooms. Furthermore, the majority of parents want their children to be prepared to thrive in a multiracial society, and most are happy with their own children’s schools.
Thus, the irony of the current toxic racial politics is that it is attacking the very people most of us can cite as some of the most influential adults in our childhoods—those who understood us, wiped our tears, and listened to our stories. Ironically, in many instances, educators are being attacked for doing exactly what they were trained to do—connecting with their students and their life experiences and helping them learn and understand different perspectives. These attacks will not only harm our children in the short run, they will, in the long run, tear our nation apart.
What is needed now more than ever from the leadership of schools of education like Bank Street is a forward-thinking agenda that supports educators by reclaiming the narrative about what good teaching is and why the knowledge and expertise developed within teacher education and education leadership programs is necessary to become a professional educator—the educators all parents want in their children’s lives.
Alexis: What do you look forward to in your first year at Bank Street?
Amy: The most exciting aspect about joining Bank Street by far is entering a community of care in a world that has become too uncaring. I’m really looking forward to working closely with the faculty and staff to translate our collective care for our students and for each other into new ideas and strategies for navigating the ever-evolving landscape of our field. In my initial one-on-one meetings with the faculty and staff, I am learning how deeply this ethic of care is valued and centered in the work we do every day. We value each other, and we’ll move forward together, grounded in that sense of care that lays the foundation for mutual understanding, appreciation, and commitment to the field.
I understand that this is also your first year as a student representative on our Board of Trustees. What do you see as the importance of the role of Student Associate Trustee?
Alexis: Having a student voice present allows the board to remain connected to graduate students who are currently enrolled. My voice, though only one voice, could provide the “street data” to this group of people. The board’s goal is to make informed decisions based on the needs of our community, which means that having people who are connected to the College in so many ways is critical.
This makes me think of another question I have for you: What is the most impactful thing you’ve ever learned from a student?
Amy: First of all, I want to thank you for your answer to my last question. I really agree with you about the importance of student voice in leading the work we do here at Bank Street. So thank you for that! As for what I have learned from a student—there are so many things! I think one of the most important things I have learned from my students is that sometimes the way we structure graduate education—meeting once a week in a set place for a set amount of time —is not always the most conducive format for learning. For about 10 years prior to the pandemic, I was learning from my students that there were aspects of my classes we could and should do remotely and sometimes asynchronously. I thought deeply about what parts of my curriculum required in-person, face-to-face interaction and what aspects allowed for more flexibility and technological creativity. Because of what my students showed me, I taught some hybrid classes before 2020, which made teaching graduate students amid a global pandemic easier for me.
This lesson of adapting and integrating technology into my learning objectives happened because I was open to learning from and empathizing with my students. I leaned into their ideas to improve my teaching, and I am really glad I did this. Bank Street has been similarly innovative and responsive to the needs of students, especially about best practices, and we will continue to ensure we are practicing what we preach!
And is there a particular moment at Bank Street that stands out for you so far?
Alexis: I immediately think of my advisory experience. Xiania Foster was my advisor for our supervised fieldwork conference group. Her facilitation allowed us to share our experiences in schools, learn more about literacy pedagogy, examine our own teaching practice, and engage in a professional learning community with our peers. It was really a phenomenal experience because Xiania mentored us in this way where you could feel the compassion and trust she brought to her work with educators. She had high expectations of all of us, and she understood that the work we were all doing, though in very different places, was connected because we all wanted to create classrooms where children could learn and thrive. Her mentorship and facilitation inspired each of us. The graduate students in our conference group continue to be connected and reach out to one another when we need an ear regardless of the different journeys we are on.
Amy: If you could describe Bank Street to someone who knows little about us in just a few words, what would you say?
Alexis: Making systemic change requires courage. And Bank Street is a place to build the skill set necessary to face that challenge in education.
And, as a last question to you, how would you describe Bank Street in a few words?
Amy: I love that you asked me that too Alexis. My answer is that I don’t know if Nelson Mandela knew anything about Bank Street when he uttered that powerful quote about education as a weapon to change the world, but I do know that he had to be thinking about places just like Bank Street as the type of caring community with a mission and a credo that can, indeed, change the world. And I am really looking forward to being a part of that!
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful questions, Alexis! I really enjoyed answering them and talking with you.
Alexis: Thank you so much. I also really enjoyed talking with you. Great things to come!