Journal of Urban Mathematics Education
July 2017, Vol. 10, No.1, pp. 16–31
©JUME. http://education.gsu.edu/JUME
PUBLIC STORIES OF MATHEMATICS EDUCATORS
Responding to Inequities in Mathematics
Education: Opening Spaces for Dialogue
Megan H. Wickstrom
Montana State University
Susan A. Gregson
University of Cincinnati
R
ecently, mathematics educators have discussed the challenges of preparing
teachers to effectively teach all students. When examining these challenges,
researchers have acknowledged problems that often arise because “teachers––
largely white, female, monolingual, and middle class––are not effectively prepared
to teach mathematics to an increasingly racially, ethnically, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse student population with which they often have had limited
previous interaction” (Bartell, 2012, p. 113). This lack of preparation can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that many teachers have limited personal experience with the types of inequities that exist across the educational system (Stinson,
2004). When we consider teachers’ readiness to teach mathematics equitably, it is
also important to step back and consider our roles as mathematics teacher educators. For many of us, our lived experiences in the educational system are not far
from those of the teachers we instruct. Therefore, we must ask how we can adequately advise and support preservice and inservice teachers to teach mathematics
in equitable ways when many of us are still learning to navigate this terrain?
There has been a recent call to offer cases and stories to support mathematics
teacher educators in discussing inequities in the classroom (White, Crespo, & Civil,
2016). Moreover, equity scholars have urged mathematics educators to “engage
colleagues and friends in explicitly talking about race, class, gender, and other systems of privilege and oppression” (Aguirre et al., 2017, p. 140). This engagement
requires a willingness to enter a “brave space in which some of our assumptions are
questioned” (p. 128). We hope to add to these conversations by narrating our experiences with confronting inequities in K–12 classrooms, including our personal efforts toward finding the courage to present these accounts. Supporting teachers to
MEGAN H. WICKSTROM is an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences – Montana State University, 2-235 Wilson Hall, Bozeman, MT, 59717-2400; email: megan.wickstrom@montana.edu. Her research interests include the teaching and learning of mathematical modeling at the elementary level, creating mathematical tasks that promote equitable
learning opportunities for all, and investigating and supporting teachers’ applications of research
into practice.
SUSAN A. GREGSON is an assistant professor in the Curriculum and Instruction and Middle
Childhood Education programs – University of Cincinnati, 511D Teachers-Dyer Complex, 2610
McMicken Circle, Cincinnati, OH, 45221-0022; email: susan.gregson@uc.edu. Her research interests include equitable classroom practice, political knowledge for teaching mathematics, and the
preparation of mathematics teachers for effective teaching of marginalized students.
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
navigate inequities in mathematics classrooms involves continued uncertainty because no single solution works across all cases. It involves coming to understand
the history and people in the communities in which we work, making a deliberate
choice to address inequity, creating space for reflection and dialogue, and revising
our strategies based on insights gained from working with others. Moreover, it
means expecting that we will make mistakes along the way and figuring out how to
be simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable with that fact. While a certain
level of comfort is necessary to move forward, it can make us complacent in situations where our expertise is limited.
A theme that connects our stories is our focus on creating spaces to “listen
well” (Powell, 2012, p. 26) and to learn as a critical first step toward confronting
inequity. In this public story, we account our respective strategies for creating these
spaces with teachers and with each other as colleagues. By listening to teachers and
engaging with them in practice, we are working to become more adept at creating
opportunities for productive changes toward equity. We also recognize that improving our practice requires creating opportunities to connect with other mathematics
teacher educators to discuss challenges in our practice and how we might address
them. We hope that our stories may provide other teacher educators with examples
of what the process of opening spaces for addressing inequity with teachers and
with other mathematics teacher educators might look like.
We begin by describing our respective stances and a case involving inequitable mathematics teaching that we have encountered in our practice. We discuss our
attempts to create spaces for productive change along with the teachers we mentor.
Each account includes acknowledgment of our remaining questions and tensions.
We then connect our cases by describing how and why we came together to write
this article. We discuss our collaboration process and provide examples of how this
process opened spaces for our own learning. We conclude with remarks about both
the nature of efforts to address inequity in our practices as mathematics teacher educators and the continued challenges we see for this effort.
Megan’s Story
I worked with Mrs. Cate,1 a fourth grade teacher with 6 years of experience,
as part of a 2-year professional development (PD) project focused on integrating
learning trajectories as a formative assessment tool in elementary classrooms. For
the study, I interviewed her and observed her class throughout the project. Mrs.
Cate taught at Terrace Elementary School located in the Midwestern United States.
Terrace is an urban school where the majority of students identify as Black or Latina/o and 80% of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. At the
1
All proper names are pseudonyms.
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
17
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
time, I was a 28-year-old White female mathematics education doctoral student and
PD provider. As a former middle school teacher, I respect the intensity of classroom
teachers’ work. I was raised in a city that was similar to, and in close proximity to,
the one in which my story took place. In addition, I student taught and volunteered
in schools like Terrace Elementary, so I felt comfortable when working with students and teachers there.
I believe that mathematics should be co-constructed by the teacher and the
learners and that it becomes meaningful through shared experiences and interpretations. All students are capable of learning mathematics, but it is critical to find ways
to relate mathematics to their lived experiences. I focus on Mrs. Cate here because I
perceived components of her teaching as inequitable, and it was difficult for me, as
a mathematics educator, to determine if and how I should respond.
Equity Tensions
Initially, Mrs. Cate’s classroom seemed like a well-structured environment for
student learning. During her first interview, she highlighted several features of her
instruction that she felt promoted student discussion, reflection, and growth. Mrs.
Cate explained that she organized students in groups to promote discussion. She
also highlighted a bulletin board on the back wall lined with clipboards. She said
that this was where she kept track of things each student was doing well and something for them to improve. In addition, Mrs. Cate implemented a mathematics journal to encourage students to express their ideas in writing.
Although Mrs. Cate articulated a solid rationale for the instructional strategies
that she had put in place, I experienced them differently. Even though students were
arranged in groups, Mrs. Cate rarely allowed them to talk or work together. I did
not perceive the clipboards in the back of the room as a tool for accolades, as Mrs.
Cate had intended, but rather as a way to compare and to demean students. In front
of the class, she often said things to students like “I wish I could find something
good to put up here, but I haven’t seen any good work from you in 3 weeks.” Lastly, the mathematics journal was often used as a punishment activity for when students’ behavior was not appropriate during class.
My foremost concern was how she framed students’ intelligences. Sternberg
(2007) documented that although intelligence is often perceived as objective, it is
very much subjective. Students’ perceived performance in class is often tied to how
the teacher perceives what it means to be “smart” and how well students’ behaviors
align with the teacher’s expectations (Hatt, 2012; Wickstrom, 2015). Mrs. Cate
evaluated and rewarded students based more on their behavior than their efforts toward mathematical learning goals. In this classroom, being good at mathematics
was associated with listening, being quiet, not fidgeting or making faces, and speaking when called on. Hence, Mrs. Cate favored students who worked on tasks quietly, answered questions quickly and correctly, and “behaved” during instruction.
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
18
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
When students behaved appropriately, she rewarded them with candy or prizes.
Students only discussed ideas or questions when directly asked, and students who
acted out or misbehaved were sent outside or to the principal’s office. Mrs. Cate
had two students––Hadley, a White girl, and Kirby, a White boy––on whom she
called frequently and often used as exemplars for the rest of the class. She told me
that these two students were her top students because they were able to answer
mathematics questions quickly and often correctly. Through observations, I noticed
both Hadley and Kirby sat quietly in class. Mrs. Cate said, “Look how nicely Hadley is sitting and listening” to the rest of the classroom.
In contrast, several students did not behave according to Mrs. Cate’s expectations. From the first day, I took note of her relationship with Timothy. Timothy was
a Black boy, and his desk was positioned next to Mrs. Cate’s desk and removed
from the other students. Timothy often sat with his arms crossed and head down.
One day during instruction, Timothy became bored and made faces at his friends
across the room. When Mrs. Cate caught him, a confrontation erupted, and she sent
Timothy out of the room. Mrs. Cate had a special desk for Timothy in the hallway
where he would sit until she thought it was time for him to return. Timothy missed
most of the mathematics classes and was often forgotten out in the hallway for long
periods of time, sometimes over an hour. When I asked Mrs. Cate about Timothy
she said,
[Timothy] is one of my highest testing math students, like the computer lab testing,
which is kind of like standardized testing. But, those tests obviously don’t tell us everything because in class, he doesn’t get it [math].
Mrs. Cate’s statement surprised me, because, I had a different perspective on why
Timothy wasn’t learning; he was not allowed to participate in class.
As an observer, I knew what was happening was not equitable. I often left observations feeling uncomfortable and concerned for students like Timothy. Whether
knowingly or unknowingly, I felt Mrs. Cate’s approach was creating racial divides
in her classroom. As reflected in the school statistics, most of the students in Mrs.
Cate’s class were not White. In fact, there were only three White students in her
classroom. Mrs. Cate positioned Hadley and Kirby as top students because they
aligned with her expectations of what a well-behaved student should be. She allowed White students special opportunities such as explaining concepts and going
to the chalkboard while often limiting opportunities or completely taking them
away from Black students like Timothy. As Mrs. Cate continually equated “good”
behavior with mathematical proficiency, both White and Black students missed opportunities to grow mathematically. Simultaneously, this approach unfairly marked
Black students as mathematically inferior to White students.
As part of the PD, I encouraged Mrs. Cate to engage in mathematical discussions and activities with students. In the first week of observation, she would begin
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
19
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
with an inquiry-based task but quickly resorted to quiet work time after she felt students were becoming out of control. When debriefing these lessons, Mrs. Cate
made statements like “that’s difficult with these kids” or “when working with these
kids, I have to….” The language of “these kids” sparked my attention and I wondered if it referred to race, socioeconomic status, ability, or a combination of these.
In getting to know Mrs. Cate, I found out that she commuted a half hour to
Terrace from a rural, primarily White community, which was not uncommon for
teachers in the district. She discussed that her mother was a teacher and her mother’s passion for teaching motivated her to follow suit. She also revealed that even
though her mother was an enthusiastic and hands-on teacher, she did not feel like
she could use similar teaching strategies with “these kids.” When discussing the job
at Terrace, she said, “But coming into the city was a whole different ballgame for
me as far as what I saw growing up as a student and I guess I have to be strict and
more firm just because of the city.” She also asserted that she had never been
around a “minority” child until college.
In the first few weeks working with Mrs. Cate, I had the sense that she wanted
to be an engaging teacher but felt she had to teach in a certain way because of her
students’ backgrounds. Mrs. Cate’s story is not new in educational research. There
is often a racial and cultural mismatch between teachers and their students (Goldenberg, 2014), and instead of recognizing and engaging racial and cultural differences, many teachers take the stance that learning means working harder and behaving (Haberman, 1991). In addition, I knew Mrs. Cate’s teaching style was not
the only approach being used in her school; other teachers in her building had
learned to navigate these tensions and to engage in inquiry- and equity-based mathematics.
Creating Space with Mrs. Cate
It was difficult for me to know what to do in this situation, and I considered
several possibilities. From the beginning, I knew I could not confront Mrs. Cate directly about her teaching practices for several reasons. First, Mrs. Cate perceived
me as an outsider who did not understand the day-to-day realities of her teaching
that made her teaching practices necessary and effective with her students. In addition, I was conducting research for my doctoral dissertation, so addressing my concerns with Mrs. Cate meant risking the study and my ability to work with her or
other teachers in the district.
I began to address what I observed by listening to Mrs. Cate in the interviews
and asking her questions related to some of her comments and strategies. I hoped
some reflection might allow her to consider her actions and to gain insight into her
practices. For example, after she sent Timothy out of the room, I asked her to talk
about Timothy informally after class and then more specifically during interviews.
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
20
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
In these conversations, she seemed more comfortable telling me about her students
and her teaching.
Consequently, I realized Mrs. Cate’s perceptions were deeply engrained and
reaffirmed daily. It seemed difficult to challenge these perceptions because as long
as her students’ behaviors aligned with her preconceived expectations for them, my
questions would not likely shift her beliefs. Instead, I chose to demonstrate possibilities for more equitable instruction. I thought that if Mrs. Cate could see her students differently then she might begin to change how she viewed them. Moreover,
given that my frequent interviews with Mrs. Cate took up her time, I wanted to reciprocate by assisting her with her work in some way. I offered to teach for her, to
free up time for her to reflect on her students’ thinking. Glaser (1982) and Lather
(1986) describe this approach as reciprocity or “the exchange of favors and commitments, the building of a sense of mutual identification and feeling of community” (Glaser, 1982, p. 50). My purpose was twofold. I wanted to give back to Mrs.
Cate, but I also hoped that demonstrating other ways of interacting with her students might provide openings for talking about equity. When I proposed the arrangement to Mrs. Cate, she hesitantly agreed that I could teach one or two lessons
a week.
In the first few weeks, I stuck to Mrs. Cate’s lesson plans to gain her trust.
Although the lessons were not student-centered, I made a point to elicit multiple
students’ perspectives, check with students to see how they were doing, provide
scaffolding, and hold high expectations for everyone. As Mrs. Cate became more
comfortable with me teaching, she asked if I would be interested in teaching mathematics intervention. Intervention occurred several times per week and consisted of
students practicing facts on computers or by playing games. She directed that students should practice math facts and concepts but gave me the freedom to choose
what I wanted to teach and how. Instead of having students independently practice
facts, I designed mini-lessons for them to work cooperatively. For example, when
students were studying area and perimeter, I asked them to help me design a backyard fence for a pet. This project led to discussions on how to use the space, the size
of the pet, and whether the house could be used as a border. Students were excited
by the tasks and often discussed them with me days after the lesson.
Teaching with and for Mrs. Cate created an opportunity for dialogue. After
the first few intervention classes, Mrs. Cate made comments like “I need to try that”
or “I was really surprised how [a specific student] kept working on the task.” Eventually, she tried some of the tasks from intervention in her own classes and asked
me for help in designing similar tasks. I believe Mrs. Cate wanted to be an engaging
teacher, but she did not believe that her students could engage in rich mathematics.
Providing students with challenging tasks gave us a glimpse of what they were capable of as well as concrete examples that highlighted particular students as creative
and competent. It was difficult to discuss beliefs with Mrs. Cate directly, but I wit-
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
21
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
nessed several incidents that challenged her beliefs about students’ mathematical
abilities.
Remaining Questions and Tensions
This case highlights the reality that opening much-needed spaces for conversations about teachers’ practices and beliefs about students is difficult. My main
concern in working with Mrs. Cate was that students were not receiving equal opportunities for quality mathematics education. I attempted to address this by modeling approaches that allowed students in an intervention class to demonstrate mathematical competence beyond good behavior. I saw evidence that teaching for and
working with Mrs. Cate opened space to discuss students’ mathematical thinking
and provided concrete evidence that countered Mrs. Cate’s perceptions of struggling students. And yet, as our collaboration ended, I was left wondering, “Did I do
enough?” While I witnessed some positive change in Mrs. Cate’s instruction, my
lingering tension is that by focusing my efforts on developing rich tasks accessible
to all students, I skirted issues of race and equity. I continue to wonder if I could
have done more to help Mrs. Cate challenge her assumptions about Black students
and to productively address the racial bias that I observed in her practice. More
generally, I continue to grapple with how to broach topics like racism, classism, and
ableism without fracturing relationships with my teacher partners.
Susan’s Account
As a mathematics teacher educator who has been a classroom teacher, schoolbased coach, and researcher in urban and rural schools, I respect the work of classroom teachers and believe that it is not possible to transform education to meet the
needs of marginalized students without teacher knowledge, collaboration, and
agency. I work in a teacher education program whose mission includes preparing
teachers to work in urban schools. A significant tension of my practice is my desire
to help early-career teachers challenge inequitable practices while avoiding the pitfall of portraying urban educators––especially those whose racial and economic
backgrounds differ from their students––as the primary obstacle to equity. However, as a White middle class teacher, I routinely encounter and participate in situations where deficit notions of students of color––an intrinsic ideology of inequitable
teaching––go unchallenged. I position myself as an equity researcher, yet I am
troubled in situations like these in which I lack the tools or the courage to disrupt
the status quo. Moreover, I find that when I operate alone, outside of a community
of educators regularly committed to equity issues, the tools I have acquired to resist
deficit perspectives become dull. Therefore, participating in communities where
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
22
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
educators with diverse experiences address tensions of equitable practice is essential for my own professional development.
The context of my account is a voluntary professional development group for
preservice and early-career educators, the Mathematics Equity Group (MEG). I
both facilitate and participate in the MEG. The MEG’s goals include supporting
teachers as they “identify and challenge discourses that further ingrain inequalities,”
develop “political knowledge and experiences necessary to negotiate the system,”
and develop “working networks of educators who share their emancipatory visions”
(Gutiérrez, 2013, p. 62). MEG participants follow a modified version of Gutiérrez’s
(2012) In My Shoes discussion protocol in which a teacher describes a problematic
scenario from personal practice. After clarifying questions are addressed, the group
discusses strategies for addressing the situation with follow-up questions such as:
What would that strategy look like? Is that something you can see yourself doing?
Teachers are encouraged to consider the scenario with respect to their own practice
as educators working toward equity.
This account focuses on Mr. David’s In My Shoes experience in the spring of
2014. Mr. David, an African American, was a preservice teacher in a multi-level
(grades 4–6) urban field placement. Mr. David had significant pre-certification urban teaching experience as a full-time substitute in local schools with high poverty
rates (over 98%) and large numbers of African American students (more than
95%). Six other MEG teachers, all White, and myself, participated in the discussion.
Equity Tensions in Working with the MEG
Mr. David and I had previously discussed challenges in his field placement
prior to this In My Shoes experience, so I thought I knew what to expect. He was
concerned with both the exclusively procedural nature of the enacted curriculum,
and a potential personality conflict with his cooperating teacher, Ms. Marcus. I
knew that he had worked through these issues to some extent, so I encouraged him
to share his story in MEG. However, as Mr. David presented, it became clear that
his concerns were more complicated than I thought. He described a learning environment where students largely worked in silence; where norms for behavior were
rigid and enforced punitively; and where seating, participation, and discipline were
highly racialized.
Mr. David told the group about Jasmine, a Black child who he saw as being
frequently and unfairly disciplined. For example, when another child walked by
Jasmine’s desk and inadvertently knocked a piece of paper on the ground, Ms.
Marcus noticed and pulled Jasmine aside. Mr. David began shouting to imitate Ms.
Marcus’ tone: “I can’t believe you had a piece of paper under your desk. I told you
last semester. I told you this semester. Clean up under your desk.” According to Mr.
David’s account, the teacher “reams her for like two to three minutes. And then the
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
23
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
little girl has to take the [math] test.” In a voice that was both incredulous and outraged, Mr. David went on to describe patterns he noticed in student seating: “All
the little White girls sit in the front row in the middle. The Black girls sit behind
them. The Black boys sit in the back right corner and the White boys sit in the front
right corner.” Another participant interjected, “It’s that clear cut and obvious?” Mr.
David acknowledged his own concern that perhaps he was simply imagining a bias.
And so, he “started to keep track. [Ms. Marcus] only calls on the little White girls.
I’ve seen the whole row [of Black girls] raise their hand. And she calls on the one
little White girl, Ashley.”
Mr. David recounted another incident where he approached a Black student to
talk about a fraction worksheet. As soon as Ms. Marcus saw them talking, she reportedly said, “What did you say Darnell? Do this reflection!” Reflections were a
form of punishment in the class. Mr. David described trying to respectfully defend
Darnell:
Mr. David:
I talked to him. He wasn’t talking. I talked to him.
Ms. Marcus: No! He knew what he was doing. He came in and he sat down next to
you and he talked because he knew you would talk to him.
Mr. David:
No ma’am. I asked him.
Ms. Marcus: If you are a student in this class and you think you can come in and
talk to another teacher about anything that is going on, you are going
to get a reflection!
As Mr. David told his story, I wrestled with multiple emotions. First I was
horrified. I remember saying, “This teacher does not belong in the classroom!” and
it was hard for me to move beyond this immediate thought. The situation felt like
an extreme case of a racialized, authoritarian, and repressive environment where
“the achievement gap is a mirror image to the punishment gap” (Yang, 2009, p. 51).
But the example, though extreme, was not inconsistent with other situations I have
encountered in schools that serve high numbers of marginalized students. I have
witnessed both effective and ineffective colleagues and administrators forcefully
reprimanding students. I have done some yelling myself over the years. Without
firsthand experience in the setting, and without knowing more about a teacher and
her practice, it could be possible to mistake, for example, warm demander approaches that involve “mean-talk” (Ware, 2006, p. 438) as oppressive.
I trusted Mr. David’s perspective of the situation, but I was uncertain how
others in the group might interpret Ms. Marcus’ behavior. Teachers with limited
experience of the range of effective discipline practices may misread classroom situations. They may view even warm demander pedagogy as harsh and inappropriate.
Conversely, they may believe that discipline styles they would never choose for
their own children are requirements for teaching marginalized students. I struggled
with whether I should jump into the conversation to provide nuance. I also won-
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
24
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
dered whether without my intervening, the participants might dismiss this example
as so extreme that they would never likely face a similar situation in their own practice? My response that “this teacher does not belong in the classroom,” was genuine, but could also be used as an excuse to dismiss efforts to learn to confront similar behavior that teachers might encounter with peers in the future. I also worried
that giving this example too much attention and treating it as typical might make
participants hesitant to see themselves acting because they feel too inexperienced to
tackle such a pervasive problem.
Despite these tensions, I fought the urge to share every concern that popped
into my head. When you have experience, you want to share it––especially as a
trained teacher educator. Yet, I have learned from multiple In My Shoes discussions, that when I limit my contributions, other participants’ questions and comments take the group in insightful directions. The MEG protocol is designed to
probe further, to connect participants with each other’s experiences, and to develop
each person’s capacity for acting in related situations in ways that align with the
kind of teachers we want to be. So, I decided to trust the protocol. I encouraged Mr.
David to phrase his concerns about this inequitable situation as a question. He responded with, “What is it that I can do in the limited time I have in this practicum
to give those kids a different experience?”
Creating Spaces through MEG
The participants began with clarifying questions such as, “Who is Ms. Marcus?” and “What is her teaching background?” A generative moment came when
Ms. Shelby, a first-year teacher, revealed that she was in the same teacher’s classroom for her first practicum, 2 years earlier. Ms. Shelby was eager to discuss her
frustration in that placement where the way students were treated made her “feel
terrible.” Ms. Shelby shared her earliest attempts at teaching in the placement describing how Ms. Marcus both discouraged her from trying student-centered approaches and appeared vindicated when Ms. Shelby tried them, and they did not go
well. Ms. Shelby reported “feeling like a failure” in that experience.
Discussion turned to the suggestion phase as participants applied possible
strategies developed in previous MEG discussions to Mr. David’s situation. For example, Ms. Cass, suggested “playing dumb.” Mr. David might use his position as a
novice to question Ms. Marcus’s methods, bringing attention to both her problematic behavior and potentially opening space for discussion through questions like,
“What is the purpose of the reflections?” Another approach was “claiming a requirement.” Mr. David might claim that making sure all students’ voices are heard
is an official component of his practicum, and therefore, he would have an excuse
to use methods that insure students are called on randomly. A third suggestion was
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
25
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
that Mr. David might “highlight the competence”2 of Black students by amplifying
their thinking with the cooperating teacher with comments like, “So and so has a
really good idea.” Mr. David asked the group to consider whether any of these ideas
might backfire. Following Gutiérrez’s (2012) protocol and hoping to broaden participants thinking about this question, I posed an additional question to the group:
“Pretend you are in your first year of teaching and Ms. Marcus is on your team.
What would you do?”
The discussion opened to more carefully consider Ms. Marcus’s background,
and to an extent, the sociocultural and institutional practices that may have shaped
her views. Ms. Cass offered this speculation:
Maybe she really is racist, but maybe she has been trained that way? I am not saying it
is good training, but what if having all the girls sit in front was her training? Knowing
this would put things into perspective to me about how you would handle things if this
was your team teacher.
This comment helped the group to step back and consider the institutional conditions under which teachers’ perspectives develop. Discussion shifted slightly from
how to “fix this colleague” to the circumstances under which teaching behaviors
like those Mr. David observed may have developed and could continue unchecked.
As an example of institutional conditions that normalize inequity, I noted “Culture
of Poverty” trainings that have been required in many districts and which promote
racialized stereotypes of low-income children and their educational needs (Gorski,
2008). Other participants asked questions about the school climate and if other
adults were aware of the atmosphere in Ms. Marcus’s classroom. We speculated
about whether the lack of African American male teachers in both the building and
as student teachers coming from our program might have affected this teacher’s
perceptions of the appropriate mathematical goals and roles for Black students and
helped to make it seem acceptable to discipline them more harshly than White students. We talked about some of the reasons that a new teacher might be afraid to
speak up against injustice.
To close the session, Mr. David explained that he had already implemented a
“killing with kindness” approach with Ms. Marcus in which he strategically and
deliberately praised her for everything she did in the classroom––even actions he
disagreed with. He offered to help with everything from making copies to cleaning
the board to tutoring challenging students. Mr. David reported that this strategy allowed him to achieve key short-term goals despite the limits of this placement. Ms.
Marcus became more approachable to him; she offered advice and mentorship, although that advice was sometimes questionable relative to equity. Because she allowed him to take over the mathematics teaching when he was present, Mr. Marcus
2
MEG participants revised this term from “assigned competence” Cohen (1998).
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
26
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
gained experience teaching conceptually rich mathematics in a setting that was
more racially and economically diverse than his pre-cohort experiences. While
teaching, he highlighted the strengths of the range of students in the class and provided an example for all students of a Black male mathematics teacher. He did not
expect that his approach would change Ms. Marcus’s future behavior, but it allowed
him space to provide some support for Black and White students and also to hone
his skills for future equity battles.
Remaining Questions and Tensions
Mr. David’s story provided an opportunity for preservice and early-career
mathematics teachers to consider, question, and analyze one inequitable classroom
environment from multiple perspectives. Participants used the example to engage
more nuanced questions about the nature of the institutional climate under which
such inequitable conditions exist. The MEG participants had the opportunity to
think specifically about how they would handle similar situations in their own practice.
For me, questions and tensions remain. Ms. Shelby’s revelation about her experience with Ms. Marcus surprised me and was a reminder that MEG participants,
like all learners, advance from their current understandings. At some point, I asked
Ms. Shelby why she did not raise her concerns with this teacher in the group while
they were happening. She reported that she had not thought about the problems as
equity issues until she heard Mr. David’s story. While I was pleased that the discussion opened space for Ms. Shelby to see her own field placement differently, I was
disheartened to think that neither our preservice urban education program nor previous MEG sessions had prepared Ms. Shelby to speak up about a classroom environment where she felt this uncomfortable. Issues of power were likely at play. Unlike Mr. David, whose prior experiences in urban schools gave him perspective,
without that experience, Ms. Shelby, may have been less willing to question her
placement––trusting that our program would not have put her into a situation where
she would experience inappropriate teaching. And, like it or not, I cannot separate
my role as a professor in my program from my role as a participant in MEG. I represent the institution that made Ms. Shelby’s placement. Thus, it makes sense that
she might not have felt comfortable questioning her placement in my presence. It
took Mr. David’s participation in MEG to bring problems to light.
Likewise, many of my lingering questions involve discussing educational racism in an environment––mathematics teacher education––with low numbers of African American teachers. There is no doubt that Mr. David’s story was powerful
because his experience with racism in American life and schools provides him with
authority about what is and is not normal. Yet, he cannot speak for all Black people.
How can I, as a White facilitator of MEG, do a better job of challenging participants to consider inequity beyond the superficial when they do not share Mr. Da-
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
27
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
vid’s intimate knowledge of its effects? How can I provide direction for novice
teachers without claiming to have all the answers? Where should my models come
from? For example, the fact that Mr. David, a Black male graduate student with advanced mathematics skills, had to go to such lengths simply to be accepted as a legitimate teacher in the eyes of his cooperating teacher was a lesson for all of us.
The group had the possibility to directly consider how subject position, level of experience with racism, and amount of urban teaching experience, can influence how
one views a similar situation. Yet, I did little to explicitly help the group make these
connections or to consider what such subjectivity means for promoting equity.
Moreover, I believe I had a responsibility as a facilitator to frame this reality with
hope and possibility for change; but in this case, our discussions never got to that
level.
Connecting Our Cases
We (Susan and Megan) met at a conference for mathematics teacher educators. Megan was inspired by a presentation about the MEG because it was the first
time she had heard open, detailed discussion of the challenges of learning to address inequitable teaching practices, especially racialized practices, in a professional setting. Megan saw many similarities between Mrs. Cate and Ms. Marcus, but,
until that point, had been nervous about discussing the situation with Mrs. Cate
openly. Megan was not sure what others could learn from her case and questioned
the appropriateness of how she addressed the situation. Susan admitted that she,
too, was nervous, especially about revealing such details of teaching without having
the example either seen as business as usual and therefore demonizing to urban
teachers, or having the example be dismissed as an abnormal outlier and therefore
not important to address. Susan was also nervous about opening details of MEG for
scrutiny when she questioned her own expertise at addressing racism. But a central
goal of MEG is to learn to talk about and act against injustice even when it makes
participants nervous. Thus, we decided we should further discuss our stories together to see what we might be able to learn and to share with others.
In discussing our work, we asked “Is it appropriate to share these stories?”
and “What is our purpose in sharing our stories?” We both felt inherent tensions
within these cases. First, both of our accounts involved practicing teachers and the
question of inequitable behaviors in their classrooms. It was challenging to retell
these accounts without feeling like we were portraying the teachers as ineffective,
uncaring, and racist while portraying ourselves as just and equitable researchers.
We knew that both cases were complex and that publishing these accounts meant
risking that both teachers’ practices and our own responses could be painted in binary “right or wrong” terms. In short, we did not want to paint classroom teachers
from a deficit perspective, but working with teachers toward equity often creates
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
28
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
these awkward situations, and it is important to be honest about our struggles and to
share our strategies, no matter how imperfect. We also had to face the fact that writing about inequitable teaching practices and our own ability to confront such practice would not be as clean cut or straightforward as reporting on traditional mathematics education research. This complexity made us both uncomfortable and forced
us to confront our own uncertainty about what counts as important knowledge for
the field and where in the literature stories like ours belong. Lastly, as White, middle class teacher educators, we had concerns about whether our voices warranted
being heard (Megan) and whether we have enough perspective to do justice to the
complexity of the issues (Susan).
We decided the best way to proceed would be to write down our cases and
continually talk to work through our tensions as we wrote. As we worked, our discussion points repeatedly centered on the following questions:
Why did we respond to these scenarios the way we did, and why did we
feel, at the time, that our responses were appropriate?
What was and was not helpful in how we each responded to our situation?
How were our responses too safe, and how could we have pushed our
boundaries further?
How would we respond now if faced with a similar situation? Why?
In writing our accounts and discussing these questions, we learned about each other
and ourselves. For example, in discussing how and why we responded the way we
did, Megan wondered if she could have done more to explicitly discuss issues of
equity with Mrs. Cate. Susan helped Megan to realize that the ways we address inequities are situated in our positionality and context. They can be improved over
time. If faced with a similar situation now, Megan would feel more comfortable
approaching Mrs. Cate differently. For example, when Megan witnessed Mrs. Cate
favoring certain students, she might now ask, “How can we involve all students in
the lesson and help them feel confident in their abilities?” She would consider saying directly, “In my view, it is not okay that all students are not working on the
task.” She might also challenge Mrs. Cate to look for other students in the classroom who demonstrated competency.
Likewise, Susan learned much from repeated discussions with Megan. Unlike
Megan, Susan’s main research focus is equitable mathematics practice. Thus, our
experiences with the equity research base were quite different. There were times,
especially at the beginning of our partnership, when Susan’s experience with the
literature got in the way of her own growth. For example, Megan suggested early
on that the Pedagogy of Poverty framework (Haberman, 1991) might situate both of
our experiences. At first, thinking that those ideas were dated and did not focus
enough on racism to meet our needs, Susan questioned Megan’s idea. However,
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
29
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
Megan’s thoughts about how the frame put her situation into perspective pushed
Susan to take a second look at what she thought she knew. After reflection, Susan
decided that Haberman’s (1991) findings were still relevant and useful in many
ways, especially for the novice teachers in her MEG group. In future MEG discussions, Susan now plans to discuss the Pedagogy of Poverty frame by encouraging
the participants to consider how the tenets of the original frame relate to racial injustice.
As we participated in these conversations across time, our discussions opened
spaces to process the equity challenges each of our stories raised. We found time to
consider and talk through other approaches for acting the next time we are faced
with such situations. And we developed a stronger understanding of each other’s
perspective, which has allowed us to see each other as allies in in this work.
A crucial element to having productive discussions was the fact that we both
acknowledge that racial inequities exist and that addressing racism in the field is an
essential component of our job as mathematics teacher educators. Both of us have
worked with colleagues who accept inequitable teaching practice as the status quo
or believe it is a wasted effort to address inequities because teachers’ beliefs cannot
be changed. Moreover, we both have experienced instances where addressing inequity was treated as something to check off a list of expectations rather than an ongoing process. Addressing inequities involves developing, refining, and rehearsing
potential strategies. Our collaboration allowed space to reflect and be better prepared when faced with a similar situation.
It was through these conversations that we realized why our voices warranted being heard. The purpose of sharing our stories is to highlight that we all have
the capacity to enact change, but we need the support and courage to start somewhere as well as the understanding that addressing inequity is not an all or nothing
endeavor. Advocating for equitable teaching practices takes continual reflection and
dialogue. It involves reflecting on when and where to assert yourself and why and
discussing the appropriateness of your actions with others. We realized that our
conversations gave us space to feel like we were being heard and an outlet where
someone else was acknowledging our tensions so that in the future we would have
tools to assert ourselves in appropriate ways. We hope that our accounts motivate
other mathematics educators to continue to discuss issues of inequity in their work
as well as spark a larger conversation on the creation of mathematics education equity discussion groups at the post-secondary level.
References
Aquirre, J., Herbel-Eisenmann, B., Celedón-Pattichis, S., Civil, M., Wilkerson, T., Stephan, M.,
Pape, S., & Clements, D. H. (2017). Equity within mathematics education research as a political act: Moving from choice to intentional collective professional responsibility. Journal for
Research in Mathematics Education, 48(2), 124–147.
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
30
Wickstrom & Gregson
Public Stories
Bartell, T. (2012). Is this teaching mathematics for social justice? Teachers’ conceptions of mathematics classrooms for social justice. In A. A. Wager & D. W. Stinson (Eds.), Teaching mathematics for social justice conversations with educators (pp. 113–125). Reston, VA: National
Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Cohen, E. G. (1998). Making cooperative learning equitable. Educational Leadership, 56(3), 18–21.
Glaser, M. (1982). The threat of the stranger. Vulnerability, reciprocity, and fieldwork. In J. E.
Sieber (Ed.), Ethics of social research: Fieldwork, regulation, and publication (pp. 49–70).
New York, NY: Random House.
Goldenberg, B. M. (2014). White teachers in urban classrooms: Embracing non-white students’ cultural capital for better teaching and learning. Urban Education, 49(1), 111–144.
Gorski, P. C. (2008). Peddling poverty for profit: Elements of oppression in Ruby Payne’s framework. Equity & Excellence in Education, 41(1), 130–148.
Gutiérrez, R. (2012, October 8). Developing political knowledge for teaching mathematics: One way
of making classrooms more equitable for all students. A webinar presented to the Association
of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE). Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/84610273
Gutiérrez, R. (2013). The sociopolitical turn in mathematics education. Journal for Research in
Mathematics Education, 44(1), 37–68.
Haberman, M. (1991). The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(4),
290–294.
Hatt, B. (2012). Smartness as a cultural practice in schools. American Educational Research Journal,
49(3), 438–460.
Lather, P. (1986). Issues of validity in openly ideological research: Between a rock and a hard place.
Interchange, 17(4), 63–84.
Powell, A. (2012). The historical development of critical mathematics education. In A. A. Wager &
D. W. Stinson (Eds.), Teaching mathematics for social justice conversations with educators
(pp. 21–34). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Sternberg, R. J. (2007). Who are the bright children? The cultural context of being and acting intelligent. Educational Researcher, 36(3), 148–155.
Stinson, D. W. (2004). Mathematics as “gate-keeper” (?): Three theoretical perspectives that aim
toward empowering all children with a key to the gate. The Mathematics Educator, 14(1), 8–
18.
Ware, F. (2006). Warm demander pedagogy: Culturally responsive teaching that supports a culture
of achievement for African-American students. Urban Education, 41(4), 427–456.
White, D. Y., Crespo, S. & Civil, M. (2016). Facilitating conversations about inequities in mathematics classrooms. In D. Y. White, S. Crespo, & M. Civil (Eds.), Cases for mathematics teacher
educators: Facilitating conversations about inequities in mathematics classrooms (pp. 1–6).
Charlotte, NC: Information Age.
Wickstrom, M. H. (2015). Challenging a teacher’s perceptions of mathematical smartness through
reflections on student’s thinking. Equity & Excellence in Education, 48(4), 589–605.
Yang, K. W. (2009). Discipline or punish: Some suggestions for school policy and teacher practice.
Language Arts, 87(1), 49–51.
Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, No. 1
31
Copyright of Journal of Urban Mathematics Education is the property of Georgia State
University, College of Education and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple
sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission.
However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.