General Bankstreet News

Welcome from Shael Polakow-Suransky, President

Posted by Shael Polakow-Suransky on July 07, 2014

Shael Polakow-Suransky

Dear Colleagues,

As a graduate of Bank Street, I am honored to begin this month as the College’s seventh President. Let me introduce myself and share my first thoughts on our work together. New to both Bank Street and the role of President, I see myself as a learner.

I have spent the last 20 years working as an educator at each level of the New York City public school system, where I sought to bring progressive ideas and methods to a policy environment unfamiliar with, or sometimes hostile to, these ideas. In the process, I learned how to lead large-scale change, how to build strong relationships across the policy spectrum, and how to create space for innovative educators who want to transform their schools.

My own work as a teacher and school leader was deeply influenced by Maxine Greene and Paulo Freire. From them, I learned that education is a process of constructing knowledge, and that the core relationships between teachers and students must be rooted in authentic dialogue. When learners begin to question the world as it is, and begin to imagine what it might be, they connect to their own sense of agency, which opens up a deeper learning process.

I learned from Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier that students need to be known well and teachers need to form strong collaborative learning communities. In exemplary schools like the Bank Street School for Children, these are core organizing principles. Unfortunately, most traditional schools work against these two purposes — they simply do not provide the time or support for educators to build deep relationships with young people or with each other. Changing this has been at the heart of my work throughout my career.

When I first started teaching, I taught Math and Humanities; my mentor was a colleague finishing her degree in leadership at Bank Street. We were both teachers at Crossroads Middle School, a small progressive school linked to the Central Park East network founded by Deborah Meier. Crossroads was one of the first middle schools in the City to develop a successful special education inclusion program and, in this work, Bank Street faculty members were critical partners. My mentor teacher and I decided to work on a proposal for a high school because many of our graduates, particularly students with disabilities, were struggling when they left our small school’s supportive environment. Eventually, we got support to open a school in Central Harlem. The school's mission was to integrate the arts and social justice into the academic curriculum, and I was quickly pulled into an administrative role as a teacher leader and, eventually, assistant principal. That same year I enrolled in Bank Street's Principals Institute.  

My student experience was a turning point - I learned so much at Bank Street. The faculty gave me a theoretical framework to understand the organizational change I was leading at my school and exposed me to innovative schools across the City.  Before I graduated, I was offered the opportunity to become a principal and to start a school for recent immigrant students in the Bronx. This school, Bronx International High School, became a model for secondary school reform - it was the first in a wave of innovative new schools that began in the Bronx, then expanding across the City. Over the course of four years, our new school doubled the graduation rate and, more importantly, breathed life back into the Morris High School Campus, which for decades had been neglected. Today, Bronx International and the other three schools on the Morris Campus (one of which was also founded by a Bank Street graduate) are by no means perfect. Much work remains, but they are thriving, vibrant school communities.

What I learned early on as a young teacher and a new principal has guided my work since. Since 2004, I have held varied leadership roles at the Department of Education. I began designing leadership training for new school principals, building on what I learned at Bank Street to help support hundreds of school leaders. Where I could, I tried to improve the central bureaucracy to make the Department responsive to the needs of principals who were hungry for meaningful autonomy. When the Department shifted its focus to accountability, I sought to bring balance to the new policies that were being implemented. I wanted to create space for progressive educators to continue and expand their practice.

I don't have a background in early childhood education, though I grew up listening to my mother, Valerie Polakow, talk about her teaching. (And as a toddler I went with her to the classes she taught on Piaget to help as her students studied child development, by demonstrating my evolving spatial and cognitive skills!) In order to learn more about early childhood at Bank Street, I spent two weeks in May interning in the early childhood classrooms at the School for Children, the Family Center, and our Head Start Program. I loved it and am very grateful to the teachers who welcomed me in their classrooms. Let me share a few observations — powerful positive moments that stick in my memory.

My mini-internship began at the School for Children’s 4/5 class. After visiting the Hudson River, the students painted a river on the classroom floor and began a series of activities where they built bridges across the river. As the week progressed, their designs became more and more complex as the structures were completed — students populated the bridges with boats, fish, birds, and people. I won’t forget the lively discussion among three students about whether it was important to have space for “supervisors” and whether the “eagles would be upset" if they had to share their space with the supervisors. The rich mix of physical, cognitive, and social skills stimulated by this creative curriculum was impressive and exciting to me.

My first day in the Family Center began with a music assembly. In all the music classes I joined, there was real joy — kids love this time! I was struck by a student who uses a cochlear implant. She was boldly dancing in the middle of circle with an infectious energy that other students picked up. Clearly, this is a space in her day where she connects in a deep way. The next day I noticed a transfer of the microphone her aide had used with another teacher. The student took the lead in making this happen and was confident in her role. She understands the microphone as a tool to support her in the classroom and embraces her role in making sure it works. Many small details like these highlighted the careful planning of our remarkable teachers to ensure that students with disabilities are supported, empowered, and challenged without stigma in the classroom.

The 3/4s Head Start class on day nine of my internship immersed me in small group work. By now I was beginning to feel more confident in helping to negotiate the tricky moments that emerged between students. While sitting at the silly putty table during free play, tension emerged between one student who had a giant portion of goop and his friend who had none. I decided to help them resolve the dispute using the language I had begun to internalize from observing teachers intervene in similar moments. Instead of directing them to share, I encouraged the first student to ask his friend for some putty … which did not work! Then I asked him how he thought his friend felt, which got some traction but led to a pea-sized piece being shared. We continued to talk and my students began to negotiate. Eventually, each got a fair portion and the morning’s flow returned. It was a small moment for a new intern, but one so characteristic of the delicate and vital ways in which learning and community are built in a Bank Street classroom.  

We educators are at an inflection point in New York City and nationwide. Public officials, academics, parents, and educators — all struggle with the question of how to improve the quality of our schools. Bank Street, because of the deep expertise of its faculty and our long history as a leader in progressive education, has a critical role to play, both in shaping public policies and in training the next generation of teachers and school leaders. To do this, we need to build a shared collective vision for our work together. To that end, this fall we will work on a strategic plan for the College, with the goal of imagining how Bank Street can grow and evolve in the coming years while also protecting what we hold dear about our model.

Strategic planning can be a cold, bureaucratic exercise that conceals hard questions under process and jargon. That is not my intent. I want an authentic dialogue, rooted in our values and beliefs, that pushes all of us to think creatively about our work together. With this in mind, I invite you this summer to read the book Mountains Beyond Mountains, available for purchase at the Bank Street Bookstore. Written by Tracy Kidder, it shares the inspired work of Paul Farmer, who founded Partners in Health. His is a provocative mission, one that raises deep questions about what it takes to accomplish sustainable social change. In the fall, after my wife Cynthia and I move into the President’s apartment, we will hold a series of open houses to discuss this book and to begin a conversation together. This will be the first of several opportunities we’ll have as a community to discuss our vision for Bank Street and our role in the broader struggle for social justice.

I look forward to our work together.


Shael Polakow-Suransky, President
Bank Street College of Education


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