When Yesenia Gonzalez welcomed her daughter’s teacher into her home for the first time, she was ready for another lecture on how she could be a better parent. That’s what she was used to hearing from school officials. So she was surprised when the teacher asked about her hopes for her daughter’s future, and her concerns.
“I didn’t become a better parent, which is what schools always seem to want to train us on,” Gonzalez said. She already knows she’s a good parent, but the visit gave her something else.
“I became an advocate for my children and I grabbed that tool and I went with it. It took one teacher in my home, in my living room, to give me that,” Gonzalez said.
The home visit helped Gonzalez see that the teachers at her daughter’s school wanted her to succeed. Gonzalez had a terrible middle school experience herself and hadn’t finished high school, but having a teacher in her home, treating her as an equal partner, made her feel respected. She was no longer afraid school staff would turn her away if she needed help, and her new trust in the teacher made her want to support him by helping out in the classroom.
Gonzalez helped start the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project in Sacramento. She has now helped train thousands of teachers nationwide, encouraging them to share their fears and even role-play making a phone call to set up a visit. She always emphasizes to teachers and school officials that visits must be voluntary.
“It’s a mutual respect between family and teacher,” said Lisa Levasseur, former teacher and associate director of the project. “If you’re going to go visit, you let them know you’re coming. You make a phone call and you find out what time works best for the family. Parents don’t get a say in when back-to-school night is or when conferences are. They’re told. So the power in building this partnership is that the parents have some say of when you get to come over.”
The trainers also urge teachers to visit a wide cross section of kids, instead of targeting only those who are struggling. Not only is it important that students doing well also know adults care for them, but visiting only kids who are having trouble undermines the purpose of the program.
“If you’re only focusing on the kids who are failing, or only on the kids who are getting suspended, parents talk,” Levasseur said. “I’m a parent and I don’t want a teacher coming to my house when I know they are only visiting the kids that are in trouble.”
A home visit was where Flor Pedraza found out what the ACT and SAT were, and what her son needed to do to finish high school and go to college. Sometimes this kind of information is given out to parents at back-to-school night or sent home in a child’s backpack, but Pedraza said it didn’t really make sense until a teacher explained it to her face-to-face, in her home.
“It made a huge difference, because they were telling me and looking directly in my eyes,” she said.
Before the visit, both Pedraza and her son, Marcos, were nervous — the only other time someone from school had visited was when Marcos was in fifth grade and it was negative. “The teacher was only complaining about the bad things that my son did, but she never addressed me to say, ‘As a teacher, I can do this,’ or ‘You, as a mother, can do this.’ She didn’t give me any tools for what we could do,” says Pedraza.
But this visit was different: It was all positive. The counselor who visited their home asked Marcos if he needed any help in any classes, and she got him into after-school tutoring for math. She told Pedraza about parent classes she didn’t know existed. Afterward, Pedraza felt she had the right language to talk with her son about school, and because he knew she cared, he started applying himself more. He raised his grades from C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s.
That’s why it’s so important to keep the first visit positive, says Sacramento teacher Lisette Lemay. “I think that’s where the shift happens in the student, because all of a sudden they start to feel worthy and worthwhile. People will forget what you say, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.”
In some cases this early relationship-building can completely change the relationship between teachers and parents, which many teachers say has changed over the past several decades. When teachers and parents trust each other, it becomes easier for parents to listen to a teacher’s side of a conflict, instead of automatically siding with their child against the teacher.
“Many teachers report when a problem does occur at school, they aren’t afraid to communicate with the parents because a trust has been developed. They have shared hopes and dreams together, and they are now partners for the success of the shared student,” Levasseur said.
MORE WORK FOR TEACHERS?
This might seem like one more thing teachers have to do, but many participating educators say the extra investment is worth the payoff in the classroom. And it’s not unpaid time. The Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project asks school districts to compensate teachers for time spent on home visits.
Teachers say the visits are fun and offer a window into the lives and cultures of their students. When teachers understand where students are coming from, they can plan more relevant curriculum and have a better sense of the context of conflicts.
These visits can also help teachers connect to the communities they serve. Lemay remembers feeling adrift at a new school. She didn’t feel she was a part of the broader community and was struggling to connect to her students. “The home visit changed my perception,” Lemay said. “I felt like I had an advocate in this parent; she could advocate for me and I could advocate for her.”
STUDENTS FEEL CARED FOR
Schools participating in the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project have seen profound results in students. The visits have improved attendance, classroom behavior and parent participation. In high school, home visits can help students make a positive transition into freshman year. New students have at least one friendly face, and because the emphasis of the first visit is relationship-building, it helps build a sense of community that keeps kids in school until graduation.
At Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, students who received visits both their freshman and junior years applied to college at triple the rates of students who did not receive home visits. While the freshman visit focuses on relationship-building, the junior-year visit helps students and parents learn all they’ll need for college-readiness.
Beyond statistics about college applicants and attendance rates, sometimes the relationship formed through that simple visit can be a lifeline for students. Luther Burbank High School counselor Emily Catlett remembers one visit in particular, when she visited a student living in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother and six siblings. Later, that student started missing a lot of school. Catlett’s recollection of the home visit made her more determined to find her.
It turned out that the student was staying home from school to baby-sit three younger siblings. Two of them had had trouble enrolling in kindergarten and first grade because they didn’t have birth certificates. Catlett helped the family enroll the two brothers and worked with the student’s mother to find care for the youngest child so the oldest could return to school.
“Every time I see her and make eye contact with her, I know she knows I fought for her,” says Catlett. “That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was well worth it.”