Three Ball State graduates focusing on excellence in Indianapolis schools
By JB Bilbrey, MA’19 MA’20
Leadership is a journey, walked by the mentors who came before us and the future leaders who will follow.
Educators know that they have a responsibility to do more than follow in others’ footsteps. They acknowledge those who came before them while setting an example for the next generation.
That is the mission of Teachers College doctoral graduates Drs. Jeremy Coleman, Brian Dinkins, and Jason Smith, lifelong friends who are working together to change the landscape of education in Indiana.
Dr. Jeremy Coleman, ’03 MAE ’13 EdS ’19 EdD ’21, describes the journey in terms of legacy: “We are not here because we have done magnificent things by ourselves. We are only doing what the folks that came before us did so that we could have this opportunity. So, our mission is to lay the groundwork so that the next educators can come in and continue the work. … We know what this means for our kids and students, seeing professionalized, educated Black men at the doctorate level.”
And their mission has received a lot of attention.
In March 2021, Dr. Jason Smith, EdS ’19 EdD ’22, grabbed his clippers.
A student at Warren Township Schools, where Dr. Smith was principal, refused to remove his hat when asked to do so. Rather than turning to discipline, Dr. Smith engaged the student in conversation and discovered the underlying issue was the student’s haircut. The student felt embarrassed about the line of his hair, and Dr. Smith recognized the moment as an opportunity to show compassion.
He convinced the student that he knew how to cut hair and braved the winter weather to rush home to retrieve his clippers. As Dr. Smith fixed both the student’s hairline and confidence, a colleague took a photo and posted it to Facebook. It took off.
“Dr. Smith set the world on fire,” said Dr. Dinkins, EdS ’15 EdD ’21, describing the media frenzy that followed the post. The story was covered by local new stations, USA Today, CNN, and People magazine.
While he was not seeking media attention and didn’t even realize his picture was being taken, Dr. Smith recognized that he had a responsibility to use this increased visibility. In the subsequent interviews, Dr. Smith was joined by his childhood friends and fellow educators, Dr. Coleman and Dr. Dinkins. Their personalities, achievements, and mission elevated the story to be about the mentorship, leadership, and student empowerment they are fostering in public schools in the Indianapolis area.
“We understand that we’re not an anomaly,” Dr. Dinkins said. “We’re not the only Black male educators who grew up in tough conditions, went to inner-city high schools, and graduated with doctorate degrees. There are so many before us that have done that. But we see a responsibility of using our voice, our stories, our narrative, and our passion to raise awareness that there are a lot of Black men doing great work … so that future young people of color can say, ‘You know what? I want to be an educator. I want to be a principal.’”
Becoming the three doctors
All three men pursued their doctoral degrees while in leadership roles in Indiana schools, which meant they had to do the program part-time. It took them six years to complete.
“I almost quit the program three times,” Dr. Dinkins said with a laugh. “But we were truly fortunate to have professors who invested in us. They wouldn’t let us quit. I had taken some time off, and they came and encouraged me to finish.”
Dr. Dinkins chose Ball State University’s Teachers College program because of its emphasis on urban education and the opportunity to investigate inequities in the education system.
As he dove into the doctoral program, Dr. Dinkins realized the benefits it could have for Dr. Coleman and Dr. Smith in their careers, as well as the support system their involvement could provide him.
“Dr. Dinkins is the vanguard,” said Dr. Coleman. “When big bro does something, Jason and I sit back and watch, then say, ‘Okay, big bro did it. Now we’re up next.’ So, Brian went. Then I went, and we recruited Jason.”
But it took a bit of convincing to get Dr. Smith to join the doctoral program.
“I watched (Dr. Dinkins and Dr. Coleman) in the program, and they kept telling me I needed to join in. And I kept thinking, ‘I can’t write that much. I’m not smart enough.’ But then I realized that I’ve been telling students and my own children to leave everything on the court, and it was time to start the process so that I don’t have any regrets. I needed to start fulfilling my potential and modeling that for the next generation.”
Their first class in the doctoral program was with Dr. Marilynn Quick, a Teachers College icon. Dr. Quick has taught at Ball State for 20 years and has more than 40 years of experience as an educator in Indiana.
“We all were baptized by fire in her class. She is peak Ball State graduate school,” Dr. Coleman said. “It’s not an easy course, but if you make it through, you’re Ball State material.”
Dr. Quick relishes her reputation.
“We never do anyone a favor to dummy-down and lower our standards. That doesn’t get anyone where they need to get in life,” she said. “You raise the expectations, and you say, ‘There’s no reason you can’t do amazing work that makes a difference in the world.’ And when you set the bar that high and people trust you, they’ll live up to it. The world isn’t going to change with mediocre work.”
And these three men proved Dr. Quick right, rising to her high standards, excelling in their programs, and developing a lifelong relationship.
She still gets misty-eyed when telling the story of Dr. Dinkins at graduation: “I was on stage with Brian last summer hooding him, and he whispers, ‘Dr. Quick, I’m going to love you forever, like my second mom.’ And I’m on stage, in front of the whole audience, the President and the Provost, starting to cry. And that’s—that’s why we teach. We know we’ve had an impact on the lives of so many and can support them in the great work that they do for students across the state and the country.”
Mentoring in memory of the mentor-less
All three of these educators can point to teachers, coaches, and principals throughout their lives who invested in them and set them on paths to be leaders in education.
For Dr. Coleman, becoming an educator was less about who inspired him and more about those who never had a chance to be mentored.
“I watched my brothers and my father, my own immediate family, make risky decisions and get locked up for their choices, impacting my family in a negative way,” he said. “And what that does to a child is it gives you that fork-in-the-road moment where you have to decide what you’re going to do about it. And I think it can be incredibly empowering or devastating. The choice is yours.
“For me, it was a moment, a line in the sand, where I said I don’t want anybody else to see their father in handcuffs, to see their brothers in the back of a police car. I don’t want anybody else to have to live that life because I did,” Dr. Coleman continued. “And every day that I come to work, I think about the people that I know that didn’t have somebody to mentor them, to believe in them. I just think, ‘If only I could have been there for my brother, or my father, I could have been that person to mentor them, and maybe their life would have turned out differently.’ ”
The memory of friends and family, the hope he has for his community, and the potential he sees in his students motivates Dr. Smith to continue leading by example. With hundreds of students passing through the school where he is principal, Dr. Smith understands his opportunity to have an influence is tremendous. “I just don’t think there’s another profession that has that much of an impact and influence on society and people’s lives,” he said.
What these three know, and what Dr. Quick taught them, is that by transforming one student’s life, you can transform hundreds of lives connected to that student.
“That’s what we need to remember: everyone needs one caring teacher along their path. Someone who really cares about them.” Dr. Quick said. “It’s one teacher who says, ‘You’re better; you have opportunities.’ And all three of them had this.”
One educator, endless influence
Now that they have received their degrees—and the recent media attention—new opportunities are appearing.
The three men are speakers and presenters at national conferences. They are consistently using their platforms and visibility to inspire change. They are starting to become involved with organizations and committees that help identify and create pathways to educational leadership.
Since beginning their doctoral programs, Drs. Coleman, Dinkins, and Smith have invited Dr. Quick to some of their classrooms. When she speaks of them, the pride in her voice is unmistakable. “All three of them seek, in every way they can, to make their corner of the world a better place.”