Talking About Diversity in Education with Marian Dingle

Marian Dingle is one of my favorite bloggers, though she’s only written two blog posts — I hope for many more! The most recent of the two is a couple of things at once, including an expression of the idea that people have this somewhat strange, absolutely fundamental desire to be understood by someone else. Her first post asked a simple, basic question: why should we care about diversity? That question forms the basis of this conversation. Marian has been teaching for 18 years in Maryland and Georgia and tweets thoughtfully from @DingleTeach.


I thought we could start by talking about your blog post about TMC [the conference] and diversity, and your question — why should we be more diverse? Do you feel like MTBoS [the community] or TMC is any closer to answering that question for itself than it was last summer, when you asked it?

Because TMC meets only once a year, answering the question has been difficult. I’ve participated in online communication with a subset of folks, but it’s just not the same as face-to-face discussion with a larger group.

I’ve also had several fairly deep online conversations with people one-on-one, and people are in various stages of comfort in answering the question. I do wonder how much of a concern the question is for the majority of MTBoS, though.

I don’t know if you’re counting me in your tally of people you’ve had fairly deep conversations with, but I’ve felt that you’ve pushed me to think more clearly about diversity in a lot of ways.

For example, there was a certain point in this past year when I said to myself, “Diversity matters because it’s a fancy name for affirmative action, and affirmative action is a good thing.” But when I shared that with you, I think you essentially told me, nobody wants to feel like they’re an affirmative action case — they want to feel valued for who they are.

Do you think there’s a way for a focus on diversity without making people feel like affirmative action cases?

My point was that everyone wants to feel valued. I’d much rather be sincerely invited for my value than my presence tolerated.

It’s all about the why. There are plenty of educators at TMC who do not work or teach with any people of color. It’s important to me that they, or other non-persons of color, are really clear of their reasons. It’s unfair for people of color to have to prove that they belong in a group of self-described like-minded mathematics educators, when we have to do this in nearly every other facet of our lives.

Have there been times when you’ve been in school and thought, this is something that just wouldn’t happen if diversity were better in this space?

Maybe it’s a bum question. Feel free to pass on it. Or to tell me the question you wish I had asked.

Question: Tell me about a time when you felt your ability or competence as an educator was questioned because of your color. Was it an issue of diversity?

In my ninth year of teaching, I began teaching third grade in an affluent, mostly White school and district with few teachers of color. Every January, students were tested for eligibility for the gifted program, which began in fourth grade in math. Both teachers and parents could recommend students for testing. While my competence had been questioned in different ways, it peaked when I recommended “too many” students, which included students of color — this per the gifted teacher and my teammate.

Some of those kids did end up qualifying for the program, and I later discovered that the gifted teacher had been asked to vacate her position since the students were performing poorly. Fate intervened, and I was asked to assume her position. Whispers ensued followed by interrogation about my qualifications from colleagues. Apparently, this was a coveted position.

To avoid a similar situation with parents, my principal agreed to a meeting with parents to introduce me and a brief question and answer. That summer I held a math boot camp for the fourth graders, and parent conferences for all. It was my attempt to make them comfortable with me, but also to gain insight into their expectations. The vetting process continued with the fifth graders, who also asked me if I was in a gifted program as a student, and if I’d skipped any grades. I was also given math problems to do.

Things went well, but my experience highlights what we have to go through. No one asked me to do any of the “extras”, but I knew they had to be done to be considered equal. After I proved myself, students and parents saw my worth, and the program grew. Had there been more teachers of color before me, that road may have been easier. It’s never easy being first.

I want to get back to the idea of a quota, and how that could be problematic. Suppose that this school — or TMC, or some other space in education — decided that they wanted to recruit more Black or Hispanic teachers, and so they created a quota. I hear you as saying that this would create a situation where the teachers filling the quota feel they have to prove themselves, to prove that they belong.

Did I get that right? You said earlier it’s all about “the why.” How then does “the why” fit into this?

As far as TMC, I’m saying that even before we hit the quota stage, there has to be an articulated reason for the quota in the first place. What’s the benefit? For whom? Is it for political correctness? I think some have an answer to this, but most don’t. At least not an answer that they are comfortable with. That’s the work – to really get at *why* this is a goal. Does that make sense?

If it’s about a school, then there’s a history of eliminating and limiting the number of teachers of color, and yes, a quota would seem to remedy that. Still, if it is only about filling that quota, it’s not sustainable. Experiences similar to mine and much worse will likely ensue. Some forethought should be given about retention.

I think I see what you mean. Like, if the purpose of a quota was “we have a lot to learn from Black educators” then that diversity policy would not put those educators on the spot. Like, the whole premise of the policy would be that Black educators are valuable, so those educators wouldn’t have to prove themselves. But if the purpose was something that didn’t affirm the value of those educators, there would be a situation where people have to prove themselves. Is this sounding like your take?

In part. But even if it’s “we have a lot to learn from Black educators” then there is the question of who is benefiting. What exactly can be learned? Why can that knowledge be obtained from teachers of color? And who does that benefit? Care should be taken with that line of reasoning.

Sometimes answers to the “why diversity” question can border on exploitation, and it’s a kind of exploitation which is pretty pervasive in schools now. For example, Black male teachers are often assigned discipline duties because “they are good at it” and Black educators are given more students of color because “we are so good with them”.

So, to come to TMC and be expected to “teach how to teach Black kids” is another form of what we experience daily. No thanks.

Right. “Hey, we really want you to come to this conference so that you can teach us about how to handle diversity and racism issues.” That seems to me a close parallel to the exploitation you’re talking about in schools.

Can you imagine a “why” that would justify a demographic quota for you? The alternative seems to me for diversity to be more about a culture change that indirectly changes the demographics of a community or a conference, which feels a bit more slippery to me.

Honestly, I don’t think I’m comfortable with a quota, which is not to say that one isn’t needed. What I’d like to imagine is that it happens naturally. That is, I wish it would happen without being forced. Yes, we need to have uncomfortable conversations, but then after the smoke clears, it should get easier. Naive, perhaps.

I am still advocating for articulating a reason why we believe in diversity. And then, if it’s needed, we should take steps to make that happen, a quota being one option among others.


[Marian sends me Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers.]

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This looks really cool and interesting. Does it all resonate with you?

I just skimmed it but pretty much. I’d add that I was once in an all-Black space: administration, staff, students, families. For 3 years, my children and I lived without racism directly affecting me in the workplace or my children in their schooling. I’ve missed that kind of freedom.

This reminds me of something I first learned about from Dana Goldstein’s Teacher Wars, that a lot of Black teachers left the profession after Brown v. Board of Ed, because before the decision they had been teaching in all-Black schools. Mandated integration also greatly expanded the opportunities for racism.

Right. Black teachers were not hired at White schools — explicitly told they weren’t qualified to teach White students. That began the Black teacher shortage. Black schools were closed, Black teachers were fired, and Black students entered White schools.

I know that this isn’t the same because Jews and Black people are in vastly different social situations in the US, but college was my first time out of an all-Jewish environment, and my first teaching job was in an all-Jewish school. I really like my school now, but my wife teaches at an all-Jewish school and all the time I’m like, ok, how amazing would it be to teach in a place where I don’t have to explain myself? Do you ever think about going back to work at an all-Black space?

I completely understand that feeling.

I won’t go back to that particular space, due to other reasons, but I have imagined what it would be like somewhere else. At this point in my life, I see the value in being that person in my students’ lives that they’ve not seen before. It’s so much more than breaking a stereotype. My pedagogy is most valuable in a space where there are multiple cultures represented. That’s my strength.

It seems to me that the thing you’re doing for your students — being the person they’ve never seen before, challenging stereotypes — it’s so valuable. But would it be OK for a school to ask you to play that role? I think probably not, and for the reasons we’ve talked about earlier, that this feels like a justification for diversity that comes close to exploitation: “Come to our school/conference, so that you can break our stereotypes!” It seems like the role you’re describing is so important, but it can only come from the choice of the educator. If it came from the school, conference or organization, it would feel exploitative.

And then I suppose it gets back to what you were also describing above: ideally, spaces in education should transform themselves so that educators naturally want to play these roles. But I’m left with the question, is it possible to engineer a natural development like this?

That’s the question precisely. If racism is structural and systemic, is there any manner of individual pursuits, even if coordinated, that are sufficient to tackle it? My gut says no, yet I persist anyway. It’s human to use what agency we do have, right?

I want to not have to explain/prove my humanity, yet I do. Quite the conundrum.

So you can employ quotas, but then there’s the chance that people are made to feel like they don’t belong. The alternative though seems bad too, which is to let things take their natural course. I think in the case of an organization like TMC, that means embracing non-White educators when they come along and trying to be welcoming, but not really doing much to change the fundamental demographic facts of the organization.

But being welcoming is no small thing. The work begins with attending to personal bias, and really taking a hard look at what is happening in your work space. Maybe that involves looking at equity. Do all students have access to opportunities? Do all colleagues? Or maybe if you are in a non-diverse space, analyze that. Is it by choice?

There’s a lot to be said for making people feel welcomed and considered. I think that’s a matter of being human, and not a big ask. But not ever having the conversation will never get us there. There are a few talking about these things, perhaps more than I know. I hope so.

What I hear you saying is that you actually think “welcoming” is a very good place to focus the attention of a diversity conversation.

Yes, precisely.

One last thing I’m wondering — are things simpler when there has been clear discrimination in the past? Like, suppose that TMC was 100 years old and had a policy at some point of not accepting Black educators to the conference. Would that provide a clear “why” for a quota, justifying the policy without making people wonder if they really belong?

I think we’re past having to have a historical reason we can point to (i.e. exclusion policy) in order to bring other voices in. That gets into another dialogue of assigning blame that’s not helpful. We know what we have now, so the questions become: Do we want to change it? Why do we want it changed? How will we do that? In that order.