There's No Place Like Home...Visits
Forge a strong partnership with parents by meeting them on their own turf.
Sometimes it’s hard to get the help you need from parents in getting their children motivated and ready to learn—especially when the parents didn’t go to school themselves or had a bad time of it.
There are many approaches to enlisting parents’ support. The program outlined here was developed by parents and teachers working together in Sacramento, California, with strong support from the Sacramento City Teachers Association. It has been used in hundreds of schools in six states.
(Visit www.teachervisits.org for more.)
Before you start:
At least half of the faculty should want to do it.
Nobody should be forced to do it or punished for not doing it.
Everybody who does it should be paid.
Typically, there’s a three-hour training program before the home visits start.
Preparing for a visit:
Don’t visit only kids in trouble. That puts a stigma on getting a visit. Go see everybody, or if that’s not possible, be sure to include at least some students who are doing well.
When you call to set up a visit, offer alternative times—few parents will say no if you’re flexible. Most visits are in the afternoon or on weekends. If the parents are uncomfortable inviting you into their home, meet at a coffee shop, a library, or even a park.
Go with a partner—two teachers or a teacher and a support professional.
At the meeting:
- Introductions. Have everyone explain his or her relationship to the student. Usually, the student is there.
- Getting to know you. Find out whether the parents have other children in school. What’s been their experience in schools up until now?
- Most important. The hopes and dreams conversation. Ask the parents about their dreams for their student, and share yours. You will probably discover you have much in common. “To stop and say why you do what you do—that can be very powerful for the teacher, not just the parent,” says Carrie Rose, who directs the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project.
- Expectations. Explain what you need from the parent, and ask what the parent would like you to do. (Often, parents ask how they can contact you.)
If possible, don’t come with papers and don’t take notes. Parents will feel you are evaluating them. If you must deliver information, like the bell schedule or graduation requirements, don’t pull out any paper for at least 20 minutes.
The typical meeting lasts 30 to 45 minutes.
Some home visit programs do deal with academics, but many teachers say the most productive visits just focus on building relationships.
Two teachers’ best and worst home visits
Nancy Fong, elementary school teacher
Worst: “When we started, home visits were not part of the culture, and some parents would not let us come to the home. One mom had a lot of problems, including drugs. She had had her kids taken away before. She reluctantly agreed to meet at a McDonald’s, but she would not open up.
“Her children had poor attendance, and we were trying to impress on her that she needed to get them to school on time. Her answers were curt. The whole meeting was over in 10 or 15 minutes.
“But by the next year, people were inviting us into their homes. They understood we were not trying to butt into their business, but asking them to help us.”
Best: “Another one of my first visits was to a very angry African-American mom who felt we were picking on her son. My partner in the home visits, Cory Jones, is African-American, and he took the lead. I could see her defensiveness melt away.
“The boy was very distractible and used to drum on his desk with a pencil, disrupting our teaching. It turned out he had a drum set at home that was broken. Cory got someone to fix it. That mom went on to become one of our parent leaders and started a Boy Scout troop at school. The boy is 15 now, but he and his mom both come back to see us.”
Teresa Cummings, high school math teacher
Worst: “An uncle opened the door. Mom was in bed and refused to get up, even though we had arranged the visit by phone. We didn’t make it into the home. That one was not so hot.”
Best: “We met with the mom and grandma of a kid who had been arrested for armed robbery and had failed the
California high school exit exam. We gave them information about tutoring and other resources available on our campus. The grandma was so thankful somebody cared about her grandson!
“Before, teachers would call home to say, ‘Your grandson is acting up’ or ‘He’s been suspended.’ This was the first time teachers had come and believed in her grandson. We said, ‘We’re here to help you graduate!’
“She was almost in tears, she was so happy. And he did graduate. He was a good kid. He was just running with the wrong crowd, trying to be cool.”
On a scale from 1 to 10, with their worst visit as 1 and their best a 10, Fong and Cummings say their average visit is about an 8.
“It’s not a magic bullet,” says Cummings. “But it is one way teachers can show they actually care about the student.
“When you step out of your comfort zone and show you care, kids are motivated to learn and parents are motivated to help.”
A Parent’s Story.
One day in the spring of 1996, Yesenia Gonzalez, newly arrived in Sacramento, walked into the front office at the elementary school where her five children were students. She wanted to get involved.
Half an hour later, she was still sitting there. No one had said a word to her.
Finally she got someone’s attention and explained why she had come. The staff person took her number and said someone would call. No one did.
Several weeks later, Gonzalez came back and sat even longer. At last she got up to leave and started cursing in Spanish.
From that inauspicious beginning grew a home-visit program that is a model of teacher-parent appreciation and collaboration.
At that moment, the vice principal, who spoke Spanish, came out of her office and asked Gonzalez what she was upset about. They talked, and the vice principal began to introduce Gonzalez to the school. Together with two other like-minded parents, Gonzalez began working for more parent and community involvement at the school. But they were met a lot of resistance. Soon the media dubbed them “the three angry moms.”
So the parents, several teachers, and representatives of ACT went to the Sacramento City Teachers Association and together they worked out a proposal for a home visit program. The union wanted to be sure educators would be paid for their extra work, and that the whole program would be voluntary—the parents supported both.
Then parents and teachers approached the school superintendent. As Gonzalez recalls, the superintendent told them the union would never agree. He was wrong, they informed him. The union was already on board. He was still reluctant. But the group persuaded the superintendent to try some home visits himself. According to Gonzalez, that’s what won the day: “He said, ‘I get it. I see the power of this.’” And with $100,000 in district funds, the home visit program was born in Sacramento.