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I am a Masters student in math, who loves teaching, and rather than go on for a PhD would rather teach at a community college. I've noticed in many of the schools to which I am applying the they emphasize the need to understand diversity and teaching to diverse ethnic, economic, and ability populations.

Now I'm just a simple boy from the farm, so can somebody explain why this is important to teaching mathematics? Aren't people, well people? And if a person knows how to do deal and relate well with others, knows how to respect other's differences and is a good teacher, what more is there to say really?

I'm not trying to be obtuse or controversial, but I just don't see what these factors really have to do with being an effective educator and they simply come off as being PCish to me, but I'm hoping someone can perhaps give me a substantive answer.

Thanks, Markus

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One thing to realize is that this concern is not special to the mathematics discipline; often there's a college-level diversity office that promotes this concern in hiring decisions, etc. You might possibly decode this as meaning students who are very weak; many have been part of disadvantaged families, did not grow up around people with college degrees, went to schools that were poorly funded and staffed, etc. Some will be barely able to read, not know times tables or 6th-grade arithmetic, etc. and you have to learn to teach to that. – Daniel R. Collins Feb 27 at 3:35
    
You may be asking the wrong people to explain the justification for these hiring practices. At the community college where I teach, these practices were created by administrators and HR, not by faculty. (Accrediting bodies may have also had an indirect hand.) If you get five academics together in a bar and ask them to discuss these practices on their merits, you'll probably get five different opinions (six if one of them went to Harvard). There is unlikely to be any conclusive answer, both because "diversity" is such a wonderfully vague word and because there is no objective evidence. – Ben Crowell Feb 27 at 20:31

Now I'm just a simple boy from the farm, so can somebody explain why this is important to teaching mathematics?

Sure, I'll give it a try. The "this" that is supposed to be important are the qualities of being empathetic to, and understanding of, and passionate about, the unique challenges facing people who belong to certain racial, ethnic, or other demographic groups. Although the primary role of a mathematics teacher is to impart knowledge about mathematics, there are many ways and approaches to doing this, some a lot more effective than others. Part of the philosophy of diversity is the belief that a teacher (of mathematics or any other subject) who has a good understanding of and empathy towards those groups will be a much more effective teacher to students who are members of those groups, and, for example, in addition to successfully imparting the desired technical knowledge, would also have the ability to inspire their students, teach them additional useful values and habits, and overall improve their educational and life outcomes.

Aren't people, well people?

Yes, that is technically correct but is probably not a very helpful way to look at a question such as what makes someone a good candidate for a teaching position in a community college. The sad fact is that humans are programmed in many subtle ways to treat different people in different ways. The ability and desire to be aware of such tendencies and overcome them are very desirable qualities for a lecturer in a country as heterogeneous as the U.S.

And if a person knows how to do deal and relate well with others, knows how to respect other's differences and is a good teacher, what more is there to say really?

I think this question carries a premise that a person either relates well to all "others" or to none. That is not the case. Many people who belong to a certain group A will be able to relate fabulously to other members of group A and could be great teachers for them, while having a very poor ability to relate to members of another group B. In fact, we all feel more comfortable with and have a much better understanding of people who are similar to us - that is just human nature. But imagine that you are a community college administrator interviewing candidates for a math lecturer position, and along comes a member of group A who is able to convince you that he/she has a very good understanding of the challenges faced by members of group B and is really passionate about helping students from group B overcome those challenges and succeed. Wouldn't you be impressed and see great value in the possibility of employing such a person - at least assuming his/her general math lecturing credentials are just as good as the other candidates you're comparing them to?

Note that those sorts of qualities the colleges are looking for are of a much more specific kind that just someone having generally good people skills and a general ability to respect others. So yes, there is a lot "more to say" than the level of generality you are addressing.

With that said, of course having exceptionally good people skills can be impressive in its own right, and to some extent I believe you can tick off some of the right boxes without necessarily going down to the level of showing that you are passionate about helping very specific groups of people. Certainly showing a general respect for all people, whoever they may be, is a very good starting point for selling yourself in a job application.

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In the U.S. (which I assume is the context, from the term "community college"), community colleges often teach very different student bodies than four-year colleges and universities. The student bodies at community colleges often contain:

  • More first-generation students
  • More nontraditional students - older students, students with dependents, students with full time jobs, etc.
  • More students from traditionally underrepresented minorities

Speaking somewhat stereotypically, faculty from more more selective institutions may not be familiar with these students, with the background they have, and with the challenges they face. It is not just a matter of "political correctness" to look for faculty who are able to work effectively with these students.

I have often heard community college deans lament the challenge they have with hiring effective faculty, because many of their applicants come from backgrounds where the average student was quite different.

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Community colleges especially draw from diverse ethnic, economic and ability populations, so it seems logical that they would be concerned about their prospective faculty being able to teach those students. And no, this is not just "political correctness", but rather making sure the needs of the students are being met.

Consider:

  • At many universities, the average undergrad likely has had access to academic advising previously. They aren't likely working full time. They're probably less likely to be the first person in their family to be going to college. If you're a member of a different ethnic group, your references or examples might be out of context for them.
  • No, people aren't just "people". They come with experiences, perspectives, and biases all their own. Context matters, and a community college is a particular context.
  • They likely have very different goals and reasons for being at a community college than you had at a four-year institution.

The list goes on, but what they're looking for is your ability to work with students who aren't "like yourself", don't have the same expectations, background, etc.

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