Greg Michie and Why He’s a White Teacher Who Gets It (Whereas You May Not)

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose, Race14 Comments

Kendall, Teaching

In an effort to actually read the books people give me, I finally finished the book Holler If You Hear Me by Gregory Michie. When I first looked at it, I rolled my eyes hard beause a White teacher was using the obvious Tupac reference. When some White people want to get Black people involved, they use a reference from a rap lyric. But, knowing who it came from, I shut my inner hater up and gave the book a chance.

After reading the book, I felt like someone actually wrote my book for me (which only means I need to re-think the book I was supposed to write). For every victory he had or mistake he committed, I’d wince with flashbacks from my years as an educator. Everything he speaks to said so much about the character he eventually developed through his experience. In other words, he lives and learns right in front of us via the text.

More importantly, he lets the kids in the story speak as much as he does, and goes into his writing (and teaching) with a different mentality than many White teachers I’ve seen. When he taught a culture that wasn’t his own or literacy of a generation after his, he did it without much prejudice. You can still teach things outside of a student’s comfort zone without making them look inferior for having theirs.

I find two mentalities equally destructive to kids of all backgrounds, though this seems to afflict those of lower socioeconomic status (poor Whites included!):

  1. “These children can’t learn anything, so why bother?”
  2. “These children need to be saved from their desperate conditions.”

To paraphrase Three Six Mafia, don’t save them: they don’t wanna be saved. They tend to prefer that their teachers equip with them with the tools to succeed and let them decide for themselves. Often, “saving” entails any or all of the following: speaking / writing the King’s English, walking straight, listening to whatever the teacher says is good music, moving out of one’s neighborhood, abandoning one’s culture in favor of the dominant White culture, etc. It’s another reason why so many real teachers hate teacher movies: they make it seem the teacher is more a lion tamer, de-beasting the uncouth minds of those students in front of them.

We don’t need our best and brightest to leave our hoods. We need them to create an influence that rebuilds the self-images of their peers and brethren, to keep their distinct cultures vibrant, and to keep themselves alive and healthy, armed with the ability to seek the pseudo-American dream. And yet, if you’re one of those teachers who persists in trying to “save” the children, you’re worse than those who have no faith in any kids in front of you.

Whereas teachers who have no faith in the future of those students are usually upfront about their distrust of the students, the “save the children” crowds are so covert about it, you might mistake them as teachers who care.

It’s probably why I laugh when people say they care about educating students and head directly to the district offices or the non-profit org that never visits classrooms, communities, teachers, or students in any of their work. And when they do, it’s always at some function where only the select and talented few students of a teacher who graduated from a prestigious program. In other words, it’s a filter of the reality we face daily.

But that’s how I knew Michie was different. He entered the job with some naivete, which most of us do, ingrained in the culture or not. The difference is that he went in with an open mind and heart. When either of these is too closed, the hate lives insidiously.

Jose, who just hollered …

Comments 14

  1. Jose, great post. I’m going to have to pick that book up. Between teaching, union activism and raising my ten year old daughter I don’t read as much as I would like to (need to). I’m going to make it a point to read this though.

    I totally agree with what you have to say about the “save the children” folks. The school board in Chicago is made up of all business people. We also have what’s called the Civic Committe which now dabbles in “school reform”. They throw up a banner of being in it to save children but many of us in Chicago feel they just want a trained workforce for thier businesses. Not leaders but a workforce. Makes me want to read Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and recommend it to them.

    Anyway, hope your year is off to a good start. Mine is going pretty sweet so far. All freshmen, algebra and pre-algebra. Some really bright and hardworking students. Take it easy but take it.


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  3. I completely understand and appreciate your insights here. Full disclosure: I am a middle-aged black man who took up teaching now entering my sixth year of teaching. I work in Washington, DC–one of the battlegrounds for educational policy and politics, In my relatively short career, I have seen teachers come and go–including a fair share of TFA’s who enter with missionary dust on their clothes and then leave with visions of higher wages dancing in their head. More than anything, I have worked hard to counteract the notion of “damaged goods” which permeates classrooms and liberal think tanks alike. My students. all of color, simply want what all students want–a chance to excel and a place to exhale. For more of my experiences this year, I ask you and your readers to scan my blog at Have a great year.

  4. Some day… all of us who teach will understand that the kids change our lives as much as we change theirs. And that it is the height of arrogance to assume otherwise.

    Thanks, as always, for the post.

  5. Post

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’ll reply in some form or another to everyone’s comments in Thursday’s post. It’s important to keep the discussion going.

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  7. Jose-
    Good post, mate!
    The first time I read the book i was a pre-service teacher, and Greg was my professor. The second time was in an Ed Phil class, and the third (and best) time i was in my second year. It is still a number one read, along with City Kids, City Teachers for reflection and mentoring in our field.
    I will pass the word on to Greg about this blog :-) I am sure he will be a fan of yours if he isn;t already.
    @ James – thx for posting a/b Jose Vilson. Will pass the book to you, my friend for this weekend.

  8. I saw Greg speak tonight, he was very interesting.

    I think he makes some excellent points about poverty and its impact on kids….very good teacher imo

  9. Greg co-taught with me in my Chicago classroom, and for weeks we worked with students to create a really powerful video documentary about their experiences in the West Garfield community. It remains one of my fondest teaching memories. The students immediately loved and trusted him because, as Jose says, he gets it; he gets them.

  10. greg michie was and to my assumption still is a great teacher.(Great TEACHER) not white teacher just plain teacher that is one of the things he taught me as an american with mexican culture because i was born in america im not a full MEXICAN because i wasnt born in mexico anyways i was one of his fortunate students hes a great man and dedicated to his beliefs. i met greg back in the early nineties wen he barely began his teaching career i was one of the people cut from his book H.I.U.H.M. lol. he has impacted the back of the yards community in a very positive way and transformed seward elementary into the great school it is today im very proud and happy that he continues to put positve into people thru books, lectures, and teachings. greg we continue to wish u well from and old pal j.g.palac- knowledge is the key and wisdom is the answer -j.g.palac- and thanx again Mr. Michie for them years at seward class of 94

  11. Wow i cant believe the impact greg michie has made on others. He was and to my assumption still is a great teacher teacher who opened inner city kids to dream and make that dream into a reality. Ive known (Mr. michie) for those twenty years he has been teaching i was one of the fortunate people that he taught back in the early nineties. writing this actually brings tears to my eyes for the fact he brought a whole new world to many of his students in the past present and future he brought a media studies program to our school seward elementary in chicago il. he taught about media and to not be scared of opening your mind to others. he gave us faith and hope thru words of wisdom and knowledge from personal experience. our school was his steping stone for who he is now and more than ever do i thank him for sharing his life with us. he transformed what seward elementary is today. before he got there it was like no hope at all. his legacy continues and thats a great thing and mr. michie we always have u in our hearts and prayers in the back of the yards communinty . jgp class of 94

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  13. Abraham Maslow and every child I have blended my energy field with (in 3 different countries k-12; 18 years) have created the mosaic of my Educator profile. They have taught me to listen with a quiet mind and observe them. They hold all the answers in their coded evolution. To uncover every generation’s unique way of learning and interpreting life is the greatest gift and honor I hold as an Educator. This life-long process of self-discovery right along with the most updated versions of life is a humbling and fascinating process. Gracias por traerme aquí.

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