Lessons from Detroit

By: Erika Reece

Four years ago I accepted my first teaching position at an elementary school on the West side of Detroit. Fresh out of college, I was excited to put my meager teacher preparation to use, while simultaneously immersing myself in the Motor City. Despite the fact that my experience in Detroit and understanding of its historical and political background was severely limited, I was confident that I would make a difference.  After all, I came from a family of teachers, I was optimistic, full of energy, and ready to work hard. Surely, I could make a difference in my students lives, while helping my principal turn around a failing charter school.

Yes, a positive mindset and confidence is important to maintain; however, I upheld this mindset without considering my position as a White, middle class woman, who was a complete outsider to the native Detroit community.  I assumed that if I utilized the strategies I learned in my teacher preparation program, followed the curriculum, and made my classroom look like the classrooms I saw on Pinterest, all would be well. Until the school year actually started, and I was forced to learn through baptism by fire, I did not truly grasp the importance of making strong positive connections with parents, I did not understand how critical it is to engage the surrounding community, and I did not think about ways to incorporate my students’ unique cultural strengths into my lesson plans (Yosso, 2005).

As I reflect back on my formal teacher preparation, I am disappointed, because I was never asked to think about how my own identity would be perceived by the communities where I would be working; I was never given specific strategies on how to partner with parents in order to help their child succeed; I was never taught how to create school and community partnerships; and I was never challenged to think about the cultural strengths that exist outside of White, middle class norms. I firmly believe these factors are essential to becoming an excellent teacher, yet, I was not shown research that supported these ideas until my first semester of graduate school at University of Michigan (three years after I began teaching).  All children deserve an excellent education, but how can this be accomplished if teachers are not adequately trained to do culturally responsive work (Ladson-Billings, 1994)?

I was quickly humbled during my first few weeks of teaching, as I soon realized I still had much to learn. Fortunately, however, a few wonderful veteran teachers took me under their wing and provided the mentorship that I so desperately needed at the time. Through humility and their guidance, I began to learn the crucial things I was never taught in my teacher prep program.  I developed strong relationships with my students and their families, striving to learn as much (if not more) from them as they were learning from me; I became active in my school as well as the community surrounding my school; and I pushed myself to use an assets based approach in all of my work.

By the end of the year I had learned a very valuable lesson – Detroiters are hard working, loyal, and resilient. They are committed to their city, and they will continually work to ensure they are given what they deserve. There are teachers and community activists, who have spent their entire lives serving the city, and who will continue to serve the city long after I leave. What I did not realize when I first started teaching, that is so apparent to me now, is it was an immense privilege for me to learn from and work alongside these amazing people. For me, this lesson is invaluable, it is more significant than anything I learned as I was preparing to become a teacher, and it is a lesson that will forever inform how I carry out service and community work.


Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). “Whose Culture has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth.” Race Ethnicity and Education, 8, 69-91.

Erika Reece is a first year Master’s student in the School of Education, concentrating on Educational Leadership and Policy. She is passionate about education equality, racial justice, and closing opportunity gaps. Prior to attending the University of Michigan, Erika taught elementary school in Detroit. Upon completion of her MA, she hopes to continue with her studies at the doctoral level.