Class of 2015: Jennifer Ammenti Explores Teacher Identity Through a Historical Lens

JenniferAmmentiby Barry Goldenburg

Although it was hard to leave the classroom after teaching for 10 years in her native home of California, Jennifer Ammenti feels that she made the right choice to come to Teachers College. Ammenti, who will graduate this spring with an Ed.M. in History and Education, sought out Teachers College in part because of her desire to learn about education through a historical lens. As a former elementary school teacher and school librarian, Ammenti loved teaching history, but as she puts it, wishes she could go back and teach her students to “be historians” rather than just teach them history.

During two years of coursework, Ammenti has been involved in numerous activities on the TC campus—most notably as a facilitator for the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) workshops and participating in Youth, Media, and Educational Justice (YMEJ). “Being here has been great—I have been able to gain new knowledge that I didn’t have before, and be challenged as a writer and as a researcher,” explains Ammenti. She credits the program with pushing her intellectually; “I look at history at a completely different way now, which I think has been really beneficial to my understanding of education as whole.” After teaching for many years across various subjects, Ammenti has enjoyed the opportunity to go into great depth on a particular subject that sparks her interest through her Masters Thesis work.

Drawn to the idea of exploring teacher identity from a historical perspective, Ammenti had initial trouble narrowing down her line of research for her Masters Essay. She credits Professor Ansley Erickson for helping her find a topic that she not only finds engaging, but of historical significance: enrolled in Erickson’s course on federal education policy in the 20th Century, Ammenti came across a program called the National Teacher Corp (NTC) that existed from 1965 to 1981. With Erickson’s guidance, Ammenti sought to learn more about the NTC and upon further exploration, realized that little had been written about this program, particularly in New York City.

As Ammenti explains it, “the NTC was like the Peace Corp for education in underserved schools. The program believed that teachers needed a different skillset to teach “disadvantaged” students, and they sought to fill the void.” Ammenti’s project looks at the NTC in New York City and particularly at Bank Street College of Education, which has not yet been addressed by historians. She has found that Bank Street’s program has changed over time. The NTC through Bank Street focused first on attracting inexperienced interns as a solution to teacher shortages and getting “better” teachers in classrooms the late 1960s. Then, as the NTC’s mission shifted in the mid 1970s, reforming veteran teachers through in-service education became the focus.

Reflecting on her soon-to-be-completed Masters Essay, Ammenti sees how it connects back to her original questions on teacher identity and teacher preparation: “How were teachers trained to work with students who had backgrounds and experiences that were different then their own?” She argues that Bank Street’s program was different than most colleges of education because of its focus on creating educators “that understood the importance of building relationships with their students”—one reason why her work is so timely today. As current programs like Teach for America (TFA) have some similarities to the NTC over four decades later, Ammenti wonders, “Would TFA and comparable organizations be set-up differently if they understood the complex history of the National Teacher Corps, as well as its success and failures?”