An award-winning educator, Gregory Michie was an elementary classroom teacher for nine years before stepping into the role of teacher-educator in 2001. In 1999, he published Holler if You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students, which chronicled his struggles and successes in a Chicago classroom. A humorous and sobering account of a white, middle class teacher from Charlotte, N.C., working with Latino and African-American students from Chicago’s South Side, the book peers inside Michie’s classroom and provides the personal accounts of his students through their own oral histories. The second edition of the book was released recently to mark its 10th anniversary.
Awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching Excellence in Chicago, Michie is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction and elementary education at the College of Education, Illinois State University.
Michie spoke with us recently about his teaching philosophy, his enduring relationships with his former students, and the experience of becoming a teacher-educator.
In the new introduction to your book’s second edition, you describe opening the freshly published book in 1999 to find that the Library of Congress had categorized it under “socially handicapped children.” Have attitudes changed in this country in the last decade?
In 10 years, I think some things have changed, but I still think, by and large, that poor kids and kids in urban environments are viewed through a deficit lens. They are basically thought about in terms of what they don’t have, aren’t capable of, and lack, rather than the promise and possibility they have.
I don’t think we can look at kids in poor neighborhoods, on the South Side of Chicago, for example, and think, “Oh well, kids are kids everywhere. They’re just like kids in a wealthy suburb of Chicago.” In some ways they are. I think 12- and 13-year-olds have many of the same worries, fears, anxieties, and joys, but at the same time there are some real stark differences. It’s really important as a teacher to get to know that child, that context, that community, and not just say, “I teach 7th graders.”
I think that part of what I was trying to do with the book was to paint a broader, fuller picture of the young people that I taught—not ignore the struggles that they were up against, but really highlight all the positives.
You write that the criticism you received when the book was first published questioned your ability, as a middle-class white male from North Carolina, to understand and relate to the experiences of your Mexican-American students who came from primarily lower income Chicago families. Did you feel this was a fair?
It’s always smart for a reader to ask, “Who’s telling the story, what’s being included, what’s being left out, what perspective are they coming from?” I tried to be very clear in the writing of the book that it was coming from my perspective, and I was basically telling my story and my students’ stories through my eyes.
That’s really where the idea came to alternate back and forth in the book between these chapters told from my perspective and then the follow-up chapters which are basically mini-oral histories, where the kids tell their own stories in their own words. The idea behind that strategy was to bring the students’ voices into the book, so it wouldn’t be just my story and the students’ stories through my eyes, but the students’ stories, told by them.
But, I don’t think that solves the problem of me being a middle-class, white guy from North Carolina telling the stories of mostly poor and working class Latino and African-American students. All I can say is, I did my best. I really tried to tell the students’ stories in a respectful way—to honor their voices, and to stay as true to their voices as I could within the context of words on a page. It’s been gratifying to hear the students’ reaction to the book, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. They’ve felt like the book did represent their experiences in a way that rang to true to them.
Your book is from a series called “Teaching for Social Justice.” What does “teaching for social justice” mean to you?
I think teaching for social justice is teaching with an eye on the bigger picture. Teaching with an eye on issues of equity and justice means in part, bringing those issues into the classroom. On the other hand, it means as a teacher, seeing yourself as part of this bigger picture. How is what you’re doing in the classroom moving us closer to social justice or further away from it? And that can be really difficult when you’re working within a large system that sometimes seems to be really backing away from social justice.
In your book, you discuss walking the fine line between being a teacher and a friend to students. Some educators frown at the idea of befriending their students. How do you strike that balance?
For young teachers it can be especially tricky because I think most of us want to be liked. And many times, the way that young teachers feel they can be liked is by being not just a teacher, but a friend, too. And I think that’s actually a good thing, but I think often young teachers don’t know how to negotiate that balance. The only friend they really know how to be is the same kind of friend that they are with their contemporaries, and you can’t be that kind of friend with a 9- or an 11-year-old.
I felt that building relationships with students was a crucial component of being a good teacher and I didn’t think that could be a one-way proposition. You can’t expect your students to open up to you and welcome you into their lives, their minds, their thoughts, and their dreams, and you completely close yourself off to them. For it to be a really strong teacher-student relationship, there has to be communication. In my situation, teaching kids who were coming from backgrounds very different from mine, it helped to be really open with them about what I didn’t know by asking them questions and wanting to learn.
Building bridges between the school and people outside the classroom is one way to make connections. Within those parameters, I think you can still build strong, trusting, reciprocal relationships with kids that can help you teach them better. That’s the point. They trust you and they’ll sometimes be willing to make themselves more vulnerable rather than close down in a learning situation. And that’s really, really important when you’re trying to teach.
In your book, you write about teaching between “the miracles and the metal detectors.” Can you explain what this means?
In the “teacher-hero” scenario, the elements are uncaring parents, an un-cooperative administration, kids that aren’t interested in academics or well-behaved. The teacher is somehow able to come in and magically turn all that around. In the opposite scenario, a lot of what you’ll hear in the news about urban schools is about kids dropping out, failure rate, low graduation rate, low test scores. There’s so much bad and negative news coming out of urban schools.
When you’re teaching kids and working with families who live in poverty there are many, many challenges that go along with that. In terms of the stereotype of the “hero teacher,” I do think teachers can make a huge difference in the lives of kids. I think good teaching and good teachers are key elements to how we can improve our schools. So it’s all much more complicated than I could depict in a 200-page book. But I wanted to honor the complexities of teaching and the complexities for kids and families living in poor, urban communities.
Has classroom teaching influenced your instruction of future teachers? And what advice do you have for educators who want to teach in urban schools?
The fact that I taught for almost 10 years in Chicago has had a really strong impact on the work I do with prospective teachers. I went back and got my master’s degree, but a lot of what I learned about teaching and being a teacher was feet-on-the-ground in the classroom. The university I work at—which is not that much different from many large state universities—has a predominately white student body in the College of Education. Most are not from urban environments and did not grow up in the cities.
There are quite a few things I try to impress upon them, but one is that they really try to get to know themselves and take a look at their own backgrounds and privileges and question what that means to them as people and teachers. For most of us, no matter how we grew up, we take for granted the world as we know it. If you grow up white, in the suburbs, in an upper middle-class home, that can seem normal—which is why the word diversity has come to be synonymous with non-white and middle class. I really want them to question that.
I think, if you want to be a good teacher to kids who have grown up poor, or kids who are immigrants, or African-American or Latino, you have to be able to try to step outside of the world you grew up with, to see things through their eyes. Then I think you can have more empathy and be less likely to blame the kids or blame the family for what’s going on. If you really want to be a good teacher in an urban school, you have to learn as much as you can about the social context that impacts kids’ lives.
In the second edition of your book, you weigh the benefits of being a teacher versus being a teacher-educator? Which role has a bigger long-term impact on children?
Being in the classroom with kids every day, that’s where it’s at. I think classroom teachers are the most important piece in trying to create meaningful education for all kids. So, I could never say being a professor or teacher educator makes a bigger difference in the classroom. At the same time, I think how we prepare teachers is important and what kind of education they get will hopefully impact the kind of teacher they become. I do think the work that I’m doing now, is important work. I think both roles are important.
It’s been gratifying to be a teacher educator and to be a classroom teacher. Right now, I’m in the classroom a lot working with young teachers, so I often I find myself yearning for those days when I was in the classroom teaching, but I also know I probably romanticize how it was. There’s no way around it. I think teaching well is difficult, but it’s also incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. There are definitely times when I think about going back to the classroom because I think it’s important work.