Childhood Special and General Education '20
I think about my journey often. I’ve found that the Bank Street name carries a lot of weight, both in and out of the classroom—the merit of the programs, the investment in our children, the holistic style of engaging in a way that is open and accessible to all children.
For Janai Gilkes, becoming an educator was, like it is for many, a calling. But finding her place in the field of education wasn’t going to be as simple as becoming the classroom teacher she thought she wanted to be.
Janai started her career behind a desk—first in human resources and then in various administrative roles, including program coordinator at the Research Foundation of CUNY, pre-K case manager at NYCDOE, and as a program manager at both Reading Partners and at Literacy Trust. When she decided it was time to pursue her dream of becoming a classroom teacher, Janai enrolled in Bank Street’s Childhood Special and General Education Dual Certification Program. She completed her supervised fieldwork at Grace Church School and, upon graduating in 2020, she found her first position as a lower school classroom teacher at the East Harlem Tutorial Program.
The one unexpected challenge no one could have anticipated was the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant Janai was beginning her “classroom” career teaching virtually. Frustrated and feeling she wasn’t showing up for her students in the way she had been taught at Bank Street, she soon decided to seek another path.
“As grad students, we learned how to best know and understand our own students, to promote their identities, and to push their educational frameworks,” Janai said. “Starting my first job by teaching online wasn’t ideal. I had high expectations of who I would be as a teacher, and I knew this was not the way it was supposed to be, that I wasn’t succeeding at what I wanted to do, and that I had to change direction. It broke my heart to leave my students, but as a new teacher, I wasn’t giving my best self and I needed to find a way to show up for them that would work.”
Navigating the challenging job market, Janai soon found a new position as the director of the Foster Grandparent Program at the New York City Department for the Aging, where she oversees almost 200 senior citizen volunteers who receive a stipend from Americorps to mentor and tutor children in a variety of educational settings, including public schools, Head Start programs, children’s hospitals, and family courts, among other locations.
Janai said, “This program taps in the intergenerational need to drive changes and outcomes in the lives of both children and older adults. Using what I learned at Bank Street, I’m developing practices and curricula for how my volunteers engage with students, and together, we’re fostering healthy and productive outcomes for the children we touch.”
Although Janai’s career path to partnering older adults with children has been unexpected, she found a role where she can use what she values most about her Bank Street education.
She said, “I think about my journey often. I’ve found that the Bank Street name carries a lot of weight, both in and out of the classroom—the merit of the programs, the investment in our children, the holistic style of engaging in a way that is open and accessible to all children. It all means a lot, especially in spaces where there are many deficits. At Bank Street, I learned how best to know and understand our students, to promote their identities, and to push their educational frameworks. Historically responsive learning and dispelling discriminatory perspectives of race and systemic oppression are so important to me, and in my current role, I’m putting these ideas into practice with my volunteers, and this investment I made, especially what I learned about navigating hard conversations with adults, feels like a gift. It’s all starting to make sense.”
The Foster Grandparent Program NYC Department for the Aging is available to the older adult workforce of New York City. If you would like to learn more about the program, Janai is happy to assist members of the Bank Street community in finding the best opportunities to get involved.