Relevance Rediscovered

Greg Michie photographed at Seward Academy on Monday, March 22, 2021 in Chicago. (Jean-Marc Giboux/AP Images for Carolina Alumni Review)

When the Carolina Alumni Review profiled Chicago schoolteacher Greg Michie two decades ago, Michie was apprehensive about the attention. He worried that the story of his immersive work with middle schoolers in a Mexican immigrant neighborhood — where residents celebrated the bright warmth of their culture and dodged gang violence in equal measure — would devolve into trope-like convenience.

“The danger in this kind of story is that the next thing you hear people say is, ‘If only we had more teachers like that guy, we could straighten out those kids on the South Side,’ ” said Michie, who stumbled into teaching in 1990 after leaving an editing job at CNN. “And then it becomes the solution. It takes the responsibility off of government, off of society. It’s a way to smooth a guilty conscience. But the reality is that a teacher can’t solve poverty, a teacher can’t solve racial problems or economic inequalities. One person acting alone can’t change those things.”

In the years that followed, Michie earned a doctorate in education and became a professor at Illinois State and Concordia College, preparing young teachers to take on the challenges he had once experienced inside Room 305 of the Chicago Public Schools’ Seward Academy. By then, his 1999 book, Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students, had become a best-selling example of humility and purpose for education majors nationwide.

And then, at 49, he gave it all up. His tenure-track position. His flexible schedule. His unhurried lunch hour. (His lunch hour, period.) In 2012, as a citywide teacher’s strike loomed, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took steps to shutter 50 predominantly Black neighborhood schools in what would become the largest mass closure of public schools in U.S. history, Michie left the relative comforts of higher education. He returned to Room 305 at Seward, to the undervalued but indispensable work of public school teaching in America.

He sensed that his lessons for student teachers had gone stale. He wondered whether his past classroom experience was still relevant in the world of high-stakes testing that new teachers now entered, a system that threatened to smother the creativity and connection he had always prized.

Last fall, at 57, he began the ninth year of his second act at Seward, albeit in a virtual classroom. He had chronicled his return to teaching in 2019’s Same as It Never Was, a memoir that reverberates with the Charlotte native’s dedication to social justice and shines with honesty about his missteps and doubts as he helps guide his students through 21st-century adolescence.

“Even with 18 years of experience as a teacher and a little more than a decade as a professor,” Michie said recently, “I regularly feel schooled by kids and woken up by things that happen in the classroom.”

Michie, who received the GAA’s Distinguished Young Alumnus Award in 2001, is the author of five books, including the 2019 graphic memoir edition of Holler If You Hear Me, and is a contributing editor to an anthology on urban teaching. Last fall, he spoke again to the Review from his home on Chicago’s South Side, sharing his thoughts on teaching in the year that was 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement in schools and how the young people of Generation Z and beyond give him hope.

The teaching world you reentered in 2012 was governed by a more data-driven, less creative focus than the world you left in the late 1990s. What made you return under what you considered to be less-than-ideal circumstances?

The longer you’re a professor, the surer of your footing you should feel. But the irony was that the longer I was a professor, the more fraudulent I started to feel. It had been a long time since I was a classroom teacher. I once could speak to student educators from experience and not just from some text I had assigned or some theory. I wondered: Could I even still do these things I’m talking about? Could I still build relationships with kids? Would I still be able to have a classroom that values connecting to who kids are and where they’re from, creating spaces for their voices and their creative work? I felt clear-eyed about what the challenges would be, but I felt less sure of how I would meet them.

In some ways, I haven’t been able to get as close to creating the kind of classroom I imagined back then, but I definitely feel like I’m a better teacher than I was in my earlier days. Over that decade of being a professor, I watched so many good young teachers in action and tried to help them through their first weeks and months. It forces you to examine what you say you believe.

(Jean-Marc Giboux/AP Images for Carolina Alumni Review)

It also meant navigating a system that ties student success and teacher evaluations to standardized test results. You describe it as a “blind devotion to chasing scores at the expense of connecting learning to students’ lives and experiences.” How did you manage?

You can try to do the least damage with those policies by leaving as much space open as possible for student voices and creativity and for curriculum that connects to their cultures. Those voices can easily disappear when the focus is on quantitative accountability. You can instead say, “We’ll jump through the hoops, but that’s not going to be what drives us or what we congratulate ourselves on if our test scores go up a couple of notches.”

Because it’s a slippery slope for everybody. As I wrote [in Same as It Never Was], I would like to say that when I taught reading, I never thought about test scores. But I did. Whatever I felt about them, I knew I was still going to be judged by the numbers. Coming back after all those years and having been a professor, I didn’t want to be the person that pulled down the school’s overall score because I was doing my own thing while everybody else had a collective mindset. It’s very hard not to at least have an eye on test scores.

And yet, the shortcomings of virtual learning during COVID have shown how important enrichment and engagement are for students — two qualities that, as you said, are often eclipsed by a teach-to-the-test mindset.

Yes, and the sad thing is that a lot of districts are just so worried about lost learning during the pandemic, worried that their kids are falling behind. I just think that’s the wrong focus. We should be spending as much time with the social-emotional piece and making sure that kids are OK, making sure they have time to create, making sure they have time to imagine. Yes, we want them to keep learning — but those things are learning. They’re just not the narrow bands of learning that are assessed by standardized instruments. This really could have been a chance to press the pause button on so many of the policies that have narrowed what public schools do. To ask what we could do differently. In Chicago, it’s mostly about numbers — intense competition not just for your school’s rating, but for your own teacher rating and the students’ test scores. I don’t know if I had a real hope that some districts, especially ours, were going to step back during the pandemic. But it seems like a missed opportunity.

COVID is just the latest challenge that Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood has faced. In Same as It Never Was, you write about the looming presence of ICE officers that has set the community on edge over the past few years. How did immigration policy in the Trump administration affect the families of students you teach?

My students and their families have been very impacted by the policies of the last four years. I think of the specific things — like one super bright kid, full of life and love for his community and full of desire to see the community improve. But because he was undocumented, so many doors closed. Doors to colleges. Doors to employment — lots of problems getting work. He was detained by ICE for several months and had only been out for a couple of months when he was killed two weeks ago. [The 20-year-old former youth peace activist was found with a gunshot wound in his shoulder in October after the car he was riding in crashed.] A woman who works in the community commented that none of us knows what led him down the path he chose [that resulted in his death] but being unable to get a good job was likely a big factor. And I think she’s right. He felt it was so unfair that he had been here his whole life, stayed in school, tried to do well and still [his immigration status] just hung over him.

(Jean-Marc Giboux/AP Images for Carolina Alumni Review)

There’s just a pall that hangs over everything when kids hear comments made by a presidential candidate on the first day of the campaign — disparaging remarks [about immigrants] on day one and so many days since. You already know you’re struggling against a society in which some people see you as an outsider. It’s a very heavy weight.

We’ve had kids whose parents have been deported. COVID has impacted the community heavily. There’s just a lot of trauma. I’ve taught through a lot of presidential elections over the years, and the two words my students have used most during 2020’s are “anxious” and “worried.” I don’t remember that happening before.

Twenty years separate your first book and your latest one. Both recount scenes in which students are mistreated — and in one case, physically assaulted and verbally abused with racial slurs — by Chicago law enforcement officers who then drive away with no explanation. The students tell you that it “happens all the time.” These are 12- and 13-year-olds, mostly Latino students. Do they intimately understand the Black Lives Matter movement?

They do. Obviously, if you’re not Black, it’s impossible to fully understand what it’s like to face law enforcement just walking outside your house. But a lot of my students do understand how police officers can be very disrespectful or can interact with certain neighborhoods in ways that they wouldn’t interact in others. Some of their understanding of the injustice that Black people face may come from the immigrant experience. They’ve been discriminated against in various ways or seen their parents being discriminated against.

But I don’t want to sugarcoat it. In Chicago, like anywhere else, there are tensions between communities. After the George Floyd case, there was a lot of tension between the Black and Latinx communities in Chicago. During the protests, there was one day where there was pretty widespread destruction of property, and a lot of my students were shaken by that because they saw it happen to businesses in their community.

How did you approach it with your students?

We had to have a lot of conversations about the difference between protesting and rioting and looting, and they were hard conversations. My students unanimously felt what happened to Floyd was horrific and racially motivated. But at the same time, they would say, “Well, they did this or that. … They came into our neighborhood and did this … .” And as teachers, we would say, “Well, who is ‘they’? Who do you mean when you say ‘they’? Let’s talk about this.”

It was complicated, and it can still be complicated because Chicago is a very segregated city. … As a teacher of mostly Latino students, I want our curriculum to reflect who they are. When there are issues that are important to Latino people, we’re going to talk about it. But I don’t want to just get into that reflective mode, where we’re just looking at ourselves. The quality that I emphasize the most in my class is empathy. It’s pretty natural for us to stand up for our own groups, but sometimes we’re not wired to say, “Well, this is just wrong; even though it doesn’t directly affect me, it’s an affront to us all.” That’s where we try to take things in the classroom. And this generation of young people, in so many ways, whether we’re talking about race or immigration or LGBTQ rights, they just get it so much quicker.

A Twitter user once scolded you for teaching “propaganda, not facts” after you shared a student’s dismay over the legal outcome of the Eric Garner case. [The New York City police officer who placed Garner in a fatal chokehold in 2015 was not indicted in his death.] Instead of ignoring the criticism, the next day you explained indoctrination to your students and asked them to decide if you had been guilty of committing the offense. [They returned an acquittal.] Does teaching require a special kind of tightrope-walking in an era of intense polarization?

It’s important to be sensitive to all the kids in your classroom, to know your students and where they’re coming from as much as you can. But that doesn’t mean we have to be neutral all the time, and it doesn’t even mean that neutral is something we should aspire to, in the sense that there are some things we’ve just got to support in public schools. We need to flat out say that we stand against racism of any kind, that we are going to support kids from all gender identities and sexual orientations. … Are we going to stand up and say that the opportunities of Black people have been limited and the lives of Black people have been circumscribed and that they’ve faced institutional discrimination for generations? I’m not going to argue that. I’m going to teach that as fact.

I really do not seek to have kids just parroting my views. But there’s room between that and saying, ‘I’m just going to be unbiased and never let kids know what I think.’ … As a human being, I also have emotional, ethical and moral reactions to injustice. I’m not going to lead with those reactions, but I am going to be honest. And I’m going to hold space in the classroom for everyone to feel valued and validated, to teach that everyone should be valued and validated.

(Jean-Marc Giboux/AP Images for Carolina Alumni Review)

What about a white teacher in a majority white school in North Carolina? How should they teach Black Lives Matter in the classroom?

I don’t want to say how they should teach it, but I would say that it’s equally important that they do teach it — I might even argue more important.

White teachers should be saying, “We need to make that central to the work we do, that we are going to look at our curriculum through an anti-racist, anti-bias lens. We’re going to look at how we treat our students and the expectations we have of them and the disciplinary policies we have for our students through those lenses.” Teachers of color … should not have to bear the burden of always bringing this up to administration at the school or district level. If white teachers will be allies in that, the message is more likely to get heard, just by strength of numbers if nothing else.

In that process, white teachers will have to have some difficult conversations about their own implicit bias.

Oh, for sure. That’s what needs to happen first in most schools. Even in my school, that needs to happen, and we have a small group of teachers who are working on it. The inner work is crucial. But it can’t get stuck there.

You’ve lived and taught in a Latino community for many years, but you will always be a white man who grew up in Charlotte. How often do you still find yourself challenging your own implicit bias?

Often. In a lot of different ways. One instance is the Latinos Beyond Reel film mentioned in my book. [The 2013 documentary examines media stereotypes of Latinos. In Same as It Never Was, Michie recounts how, “in the age of Trump,” students viewing the film in his class had been “completely crushed” by its images.]

I thought, “Hey, I’ve taught this film. I know this film. It’s good for these Mexican-American, mostly Latino kids to watch this film.” I lost sight of how it hits them differently than it hits me, even though I feel like I’m sympathetic and empathetic. Bias also comes up in conversations I have with my colleagues, conversations I have with my wife, who is Mexican American. It’s a perpetual, consistent commitment to saying that our country has steeped itself in racism, and white people and our parents and their parents have been steeped in this. It takes more than a workshop or a class or a book that looks through an anti-racist lens to even begin to chip away at that.

You write that teaching is inherently political. The inequities of society inevitably spill into our public schools. As a result, you said, a teacher who does everything they should inside the classroom but does not stand up for students and their families outside school contributes to those inequities.

I think so. We can’t separate our teaching selves from our citizen selves. To go in and work with Black kids or work with kids on a Native American reservation or work with kids in a mostly Latinx neighborhood in L.A., but then in your personal life and in your politics support policies and politicians that are hurting those communities — that’s very problematic at best. We have to be on the side of our kids and their families, and that has to carry on beyond the walls of the classroom.

Do teachers need to be activists in their communities?

There are lots of different ways to be civically engaged and active without being an activist. I don’t even call myself that, don’t feel worthy of that title, although I strive to be outspoken and involved. It involves, yes, self-education. It might involve meeting with other teachers to discuss issues of race and what it means to be an outsider. I went for a couple of years without reading any books by white authors, for example. It doesn’t have to look the same for everybody, but most of us can do much more than we’re doing.

You mentioned unprecedented anxiety and worry among your students during the 2020 election. How did that play out in the classroom?

The flip side of all that [anxiety] is that we’ve talked a lot about civic engagement and what that looks like. My students interviewed adults and older teens to ask what kinds of engagement they’ve participated in. It has enabled them to see that, yeah, there are a lot of hard things going on right now, a lot of reasons to feel frustrated and even hopeless sometimes. But there have been many other reasons to feel that way in the past.

Largely, what has risen up in response are groups of people who have said, “We can do something. Whether it’s on our block or in our city.” And increasingly, it’s young people who are leading those movements. Even younger kids are seeing that and saying, “We have a voice, and we need to use it.” There is something in this generation that is very promising and very hopeful. They have a chance to change our communities — and our country as a whole — for the better.