Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 2006 Issue »

    Editor's Review of See You When We Get There: Teaching for Change in Urban Schools by Gregory Michie

    Megin Charner-Laird
    Full Text

    Education in most urban settings is at a crisis point, characterized by limited student access to quality teaching, high dropout rates, and high rates of underachievement (Cochran-Smith, 2003; Darling-Hammond, 2003; Hess, 1999; Weiner, 2000). The federal No Child Left Behind Act can be seen as both evidence of and a response to this crisis. Perhaps the most important dimension of this crisis is that it overwhelmingly affects children of color. While less than half of the U.S. population is comprised of people of color, the majority of students attending urban schools are people of color (Ladson-Billings, 2004). This crisis, then, is layered with inequities, and the result is that vast numbers of students of color encounter sub-par educational experiences. The results are overwhelming. As Jean Anyon (1997) notes, urban schools have helped fewer than 50 percent of their students to achieve at the national average. Dropout rates also remain alarmingly high for Black and Latino students (Greene, 2002; National Center for Education Statistics, 2000).

    Compounding this grim picture is the fact that within high-poverty schools, the majority of which are in urban settings, teacher turnover is 50 percent higher than in low-poverty schools (Ingersoll, 2001; National Commission for Teaching and America’s Future, 2003). In these urban schools, over half of new teachers transfer or leave the profession within five years (Haycock, 1998). Moreover, students in urban schools are more likely than those in suburban settings to be taught by underprepared, inexperienced, unqualified, or substitute teachers (Darling-Hammond, 2004). There is clearly a crisis not only in educating students to high levels of achievement, but also in securing effective teachers who will remain in these urban settings.

    While a picture of who does teach (and who remains teaching) in urban schools might be interesting, more important, perhaps, is a portrait of those who do it well. It is just such a portrait that Gregory Michie sets out to paint in See You When We Get There: Teaching for Change in Urban Schools. Through the use of portraiture (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997), Michie presents the stories of five women of color who are teachers making a difference in the lives of urban youth. Michie deliberately chose portraiture for its ability to “describe and depict the complexity of human experience from the perspectives of the people living that experience” (p. 197). In so doing, he chose a methodology that allowed him to work collaboratively with the five participants in order to capture their stories through rich description. These are the stories that often remain untold — those that fail to capture headlines as they describe the work of individual teachers, sometimes working in isolation, but doing what it takes to reach their students and to support student achievement. While little media and research attention focuses on successful urban teachers, these are stories that must be told, shared, and used to teach others. They are the stories that give us a glimpse into the real reforms — the practices that teachers have found successful in even the most challenging classrooms (as opposed to external policy mandates) — necessary to affect the current crisis in urban schools.

    Culturally Responsive Teaching

    When considering effective urban teachers, the framework of culturally responsive teaching provides a useful lens through which to view their practice. Michie made a conscious decision to profile effective teachers in this book. Reading the narratives about their practice revealed that, consciously or not, these teachers were practicing culturally responsive teaching. For them it was not about enacting a theory, but about doing what they knew was best for their students. These teachers also brought a social-justice agenda to their teaching. Their efforts to fight inequity and to help their students challenge the status quo placed their practice firmly within the constructs of culturally responsive teaching. For these teachers, implementing culturally responsive pedagogies was a natural outgrowth of their teaching philosophies. So, too, did the theories of culturally responsive teaching emerge as a natural lens through which to review this book.

    justice-oriented teacher. The narratives in this new volume helped him see the work of teaching for social justice through the eyes of teachers of color, and bring that work to readers as well. The past decade has seen a host of researchers begin to theorize and write about culturally responsive teaching, which has also been termed culturally relevant pedagogy, multicultural education, and equity pedagogy (e.g., Banks, 2004; Banks & Banks, 1995; Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1995b, 2001; Nieto, 2002; Sleeter & Grant, 1999; Villegas & Lucas, 2002).* As noted by Gay (1992), however, the emphasis placed on describing theoretically what is entailed in being a culturally responsive teacher has far outweighed the emphasis on guiding teachers in how to teach in such a manner and on publishing the narratives of those who do. Given this gap, the purpose of this review is to examine Michie’s narratives of five urban teachers through the lens of culturally responsive teaching. This examination will shed light not only on the book itself, but on how these theories play out in practice.

    Ladson-Billings (1995b) defines culturally relevant pedagogy as teaching that helps “students to be academically successful, culturally competent, and sociopolitically critical” (pp. 477–478). Although other authors take different approaches to describing culturally responsive teaching (see, e.g., Banks & Banks, 1995; Gay, 2002; Villegas & Lucas, 2002), these three outcomes or domains can serve as an overarching description of the intended outcomes of such a teaching approach. These three domains serve as the framework through which I will examine Michie’s narratives in See You When We Get There.

    In describing culturally relevant teaching, Ladson-Billings (1995a) draws on her work with effective teachers of African American children. She notes that in the area of academic success, these teachers were relentless: They “demanded, reinforced, and produced academic excellence in their students” (p. 160). When helping students to develop or maintain cultural competence, Ladson-Billings emphasizes the importance of “utiliz[ing] students’ culture as a vehicle for learning” (p. 161). When this is done, school becomes an affirming place for students of all races and ethnicities, rather than a setting that merely affirms the dominant, White social paradigm. Finally, in order to help students critique societal norms and inequities, Ladson-Billings says teachers must help students develop “a broader sociopolitical consciousness” to support such critiques (p. 162).

    Teaching in this way requires more of teachers than has traditionally been expected. As noted by Villegas and Lucas (2002), such teachers must have “sociocultural consciousness” and recognize the influences of race, class, and other background characteristics on students’ ways of being. Additionally, Gay (2002) notes the importance of creating classroom communities that are exemplified by care and respect for students’ differences while at the same time holding students to high standards. Such “culturally sensitive caring” creates an environment in which students can build community among themselves and deep learning can occur. Finally, Banks and Banks (1995) call on teachers to enact teaching strategies that facilitate deep learning rather than using approaches that may only call on students to perform rote memorization.

    Given the recent terrain of scholarship on culturally responsive teaching, there remains a need for concrete narratives of teachers carrying out this work. As noted above, more than twelve years ago, Gay (1992) pointed to a research context characterized by plenty of theoretical work on culturally responsive teaching, yet by a dearth of work on how to implement such pedagogies. More than a decade later, Gay (2004) noted that this gap remains. She argues that studies are needed that operationalize culturally responsive teaching in order to affect the work of teaching at a functional level. While Michie’s book does not set out to explicitly operationalize culturally relevant pedagogy, the narratives of the five teachers in the book can help us begin to undertake that task.

    The Teachers

    In seeking participants, Michie looked for both men and women of color. He hoped to find “good” teachers, broadly defined. Through personal networks, he identified the five women highlighted in this book. Although at least one man agreed to participate in the project, his principal denied Michie access to the school. The women Michie profiles in See You When We Get There, all of whom taught in Chicago public schools (traditional or charter), represent a broad range of experiences both personally and professionally (see Table 1). Michie set out to find a diverse sample of teachers of color, all of whom were “teaching for change” (p. 4). In doing so, he hoped to add to a small but growing collection of narratives about teachers of color working for social justice. Michie, a White man, previously published Holler If You Hear Me (1999), an account of his own struggles and triumphs as a White, social-justice-oriented teacher. The narratives in this new volume helped him see the work of teaching for social justice through the eyes of teachers of color, and bring that work to readers as well.

    Support for Academic Success

    As Michie paints pictures of the teaching and learning occurring in these five teachers’ classrooms, we see a variety of ways they support the academic success of their students. Banks and Banks (1995) describe a pedagogy that focuses on creating new knowledge and understanding with and for students. Cynthia’s methods exemplified this. In spite of student complaints, she noted, she pushed her students hard in her science classroom. She explained that this push, along with holding high expectations for her students, would help give them a solid foundation. Cynthia’s goal was to support her students’ later academic success by providing a strong middle school science background. We see that Cynthia not only thought of her students’ short-term success in her class, but also kept their long-term academic careers in mind. Liz, too, exemplified this tenet of culturally responsive teaching. Her work, as she relates it, focused on engaging students in intellectual activity. This counters what she saw as society’s tendency towards anti-intellectualism. Liz assigned to her African American studies class out of her desire to teach intellectually rigorous content. In spite of students’ protests due primarily to the book’s length, Liz explained to them the importance of the book to their intellectual and cultural development. In so doing, Liz supported not only her students’ academic growth, but also their development of cultural competence.

    Toni, a Spanish and reading teacher, serves as an example of both success and struggle in nurturing students’ academic achievement. A teacher in a charter school, Toni brought creative techniques to her Spanish language classes. Through language play, discussing events and people to whom her students could relate, and outright humor, Toni created an energized learning environment in her classes. Students wanted to learn so that they could understand the humorous stories that she would relate in Spanish. Toni made learning real, meaningful, and fun for students in these classes, which supported their success. On the flipside, however, Toni noted her struggles as a reading teacher. Although Michie critiqued her self-deprecation, Toni’s ability to support student achievement in reading was undoubtedly affected by her lack of training in teaching the subject, which is a challenge faced by many charter schools. Notably, however, Toni felt the support of her colleagues and administration at her school. It is likely, then, that in spite of her feelings of underpreparedness in the area of reading, Toni could find meaningful support among her colleagues to help her in this area.

    Michie strives to portray the successful side of the teachers, but the volume would be enhanced were he to take a more critical perspective at some points. Toni’s experiences at her charter school present the perfect opportunity for such critique. While Toni felt comfortable as a Spanish teacher, she struggled to teach reading. She noted, however, that she had a supportive administration and colleagues, as well as much curricular freedom. Toni’s case presents a ripe opportunity for Michie to analyze the ways in which organizational and contextual factors shape and interact with teachers’ individual experiences. In failing to take up such an analysis, Michie may lead readers away from considering the importance of contextual factors in both research on teaching and classroom teaching itself. Michie presents many rich descriptions of the ways teachers supported students’ academic success (the first tenet of culturally responsive teaching); yet, as in Toni’s case, these descriptions would seem all the more powerful were he also to outline some struggles that teachers encountered in attempting to realize this goal.

    Developing Cultural Competence

    In addition to the importance of incorporating students’ cultures into the curriculum (Irvine, 2002), culturally responsive teaching affirms these cultures and supports students in both developing and maintaining cultural competence, or a valuing and embracing of one’s home culture (Ladson-Billings, 1995a, 1995b). While teachers in Michie’s book support the development of cultural competence in many ways, a distinct pattern emerged among these five women. All of these teachers expressed a desire either to serve as a role model for their students or to attend specifically to the needs and achievement of students of their own race. This sentiment was not meant to exclude students of other races (a point Cynthia addresses explicitly), but rather to show students that women of their own race, often from the same neighborhood, can achieve and “make it” in the mainstream culture.

    Toni, for example, spoke of wanting to teach in her hometown for two reasons. She wanted students to learn from her example of someone from their neighborhood who achieved success, and she believed that it was vitally important that African American students have effective Black teachers. Through serving as a role model of both a good African American teacher and a “homegrown” teacher, Toni helped students see possibilities for their futures and to value their own backgrounds and experiences as capital that could contribute to their later success. Freda, too, built cultural competence through her own example. She served as an example of a successful Asian American and worked explicitly to guide students away from what had previously been her personal path of cultural denial. Freda also taught Asian American studies, and many of her students learned to value their home cultures for the first time.

    Nancy, a Latina who returned to her own elementary school to teach, saw working at her school as returning “home.” For her this was an act of honesty, and potentially one of liberation on behalf of her students. She explained that as a teacher she wanted to expose her students to the realities they would face, the same realities that she, at an early age, did not realize. In so doing, Nancy hoped to support her students in understanding themselves and society, while conquering obstacles that might stand in their way. In her mind, self-confidence and knowing who they were, including their unique cultures and backgrounds, did not have to limit their future possibilities. Similarly, Liz believed her mission as a teacher was to teach Black students well. She noted a certain “urgency” behind knowing what Black students need, as well as the importance of being able to connect with them culturally and historically. While Liz spoke explicitly about her focus on reaching Black students, her teaching, and that of the other four women, helped all students to know the value of their own and others’ cultures. Being taught by women who knew and valued their own histories and cultures, who made conversations about their backgrounds explicit parts of their teaching, who affirmed not only their own roots but those of their students (Villegas & Lucas, 2002) was a means through which students could both develop and enhance their own cultural competence.

    Developing Critical Consciousness

    Efforts to develop critical consciousness were woven throughout these teachers’ pedagogies. Ladson-Billings (1995a) describes the need for students to “develop a broader sociopolitical consciousness that allows them to critique the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social inequities” (p. 162). Such critique could be seen woven throughout the observations presented by Michie. As noted above, through her English curriculum, Nancy went to great lengths to support her students in understanding themselves and their social positioning so they could overcome any obstacles. She hoped her students would question society, question the norms presented to them, and in so doing empower themselves to succeed. For Nancy, as with the other teachers, we see the importance of critical consciousness in the forefront of the curriculum. Such social critique was not a sidebar in her classes but a main current that ran throughout all of her instruction. Cynthia, too, provided explicit modeling of critical consciousness to her students, knowing that academic learning alone would not be enough to get them ahead. Michie recounts an instance in which Cynthia spoke out about social and institutional barriers that both she and her students face as girls and women of color. She related a desire to get her students angry about social injustices and to help them then channel that anger into bringing about change.

    Teaching students to develop critical consciousness is not an easy task. Although she went to great lengths to develop critical consciousness among her students, Freda felt frustrated. She described her goal of having all of her students emerge from her classes as social activists, yet she feared she would not accomplish this. While a tall order, this goal speaks to the ways that social critique played a prominent role in Freda’s classes. Freda sought to help her students critique social inequities through such strategies as explicitly teaching about controversial issues, such as sweatshop labor. Freda self-identified as an activist teacher with a goal of helping her students “do something good in the world” (p. 115). Michie describes Freda’s pedagogy as a “natural extension” of her beliefs and identity as a social activist. She thus exemplified the way teaching for critical consciousness is seamlessly interwoven into one’s pedagogy and curriculum.

    The success of these five women in this area rested, to a large extent, on other characteristics of their teaching. All five held a dynamic, critical conception of knowledge and created learning environments in which they developed both strong relationships with students and a strong community of learners. Ladson-Billings (1995b) notes that having such a conception of knowledge and placing such a high value on building positive social relations create a strong foundation for culturally relevant teaching. Importantly, however, such teaching is a challenge to undertake. Michie paints a picture in this book of five women who go above and beyond in their work, but who also experience exhaustion and sometimes isolation in their work. While painting portraits of successful teachers and teaching methods is invaluable, Michie could have gone further in his exploration of the struggles encountered by these teachers. What specific challenges did these women face with regard to time, working with colleagues, garnering administrative support, or infusing such thoughtful social critique into every lesson? Where did they feel they fell short? Where might Michie have sensed that these challenges negatively influenced student learning? The task of being a culturally responsive teacher is Herculean, and presenting the struggles and probable self-doubt encountered along the way could have humanized these teachers for many readers.

    Further Thoughts

    While See You When We Get There presents inspiring stories of five teachers, I would argue that these stories can also help humanize the theoretical underpinnings of culturally responsive teaching. Yet there are areas beyond those noted above where Michie could have provided more for his readers. Throughout the book there are points when Michie characterizes a classroom or a teacher’s thinking in a certain manner yet fails to provide data to support it. For example, he characterizes Liz’s classroom as a place of “trust and respect” (p. 18). However, instead of painting a textured portrait of how such trust and respect played out in this classroom, as he does at so many other points in the narrative, Michie relies merely on one student’s words to make this statement. A more thorough picture of just what characterizes the trust and respect of Liz’s classroom may have helped readers anxious to create a similar context within their own classrooms.

    Michie, a former teacher himself, occasionally uses his participants’ experiences to reflect on his own time in the classroom. These snapshots are brief, such as when he reflects on how his own students fell far short of his expectations when carrying out a research project — a stark comparison to Cynthia’s students, whom he watched research the human body with great detail, tenacity, and success, overcoming the obstacles to obtaining resources and information that had tripped up his own students (p. 63). Such tidbits on Michie’s own teaching career could, I believe, be expanded to serve as an opportunity to reflect on the challenges inherent in culturally responsive teaching — challenges that Michie himself encountered.

    While See You When We Get There provides rich descriptions of teachers who are effective in the urban context, there are many other analytic pathways that Michie could have explored in greater detail. For example, while three of the teachers worked in traditional public schools, two worked in charter schools. All five encountered drastically different experiences in the domain of administrative and collegial support, as well as in the school cultures in which they taught. An explanation of the role that context played in these five women’s teaching, as noted above in the discussion of Toni, would have enriched the volume and helped readers envision this work situated within varied and often challenging contexts. Additionally, all five teachers were still in the early years of their careers. Michie could have seized this opportunity to discuss the challenges they encountered as relatively novice teachers. Given the extraordinarily high turnover levels among new urban teachers (Haycock, 1998), it seems that Michie should have examined the experiences of these teachers during their first few years on the job as they related to their thoughts about the future, making decisions about whether to remain in the profession or to join the more than 50 percent who leave within five years.

    In the final chapter of the book, Michie notes that he chose the five participants as effective examples of how teachers can “work against the grain” (p. 183) of the systems in which they teach. Providing these rich portraits is a first important step — and, notably, an enjoyable one for the reader. The field still lacks a solid body of narratives on teachers who exemplify culturally responsive teaching. This book can help fill that void. Perhaps the next step for Michie is naming the theoretical construct that the teachers so wonderfully exhibit, explicitly discussing the importance of culturally relevant pedagogy and naming the strategies these women used to implement such pedagogy. A companion volume could powerfully and effectively link the theoretical and the practical. As it stands, however, See You When We Get There tells powerful stories of teachers delivering outstanding results in urban contexts. Given the negative frame in which such contexts are all too often painted, this book is a welcome addition to the narratives on urban teaching and learning.


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  2. Fall 2006 Issue


    Sexuality Education and Desire
    Still Missing after All These Years
    Michelle Fine and Sara McClelland
    What Community Participation in Schooling Means
    Insights from Southern Ethiopia
    Jennifer Swift-Morgan
    The Aspira Consent Decree
    A Thirtieth-Anniversary Retrospective of Bilingual Education in New York City
    Luis O. Reyes
    Implementing Small Theme High Schools in New York City
    Great Intentions and Great Tensions
    Jacqueline Ancess and David Allen

    Book Notes

    Teaching by Heart
    By Sara Day Hatton

    Raising Biracial Children
    By Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy

    Critical Perspectives
    Edited by Caron Atlas and Pam Korza

    Three Magic Letters
    By Michael T. Nettles and Catherine M. Millett

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.