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Home Visits: Reaching Beyond the Classroom

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As a teacher at a small Oakland, California public high school called Life Academy, where each teacher also holds a mixed-grade level advisory class of about 20 students, I began conducting home visits for my advisees as a way to clarify my relationship to them as more than a teacher. After all, we would be together for the next four years. I would be their advocate when they struggled in other classes, the one who would write their letters of recommendation, announce them at graduation, and ask them about their day, every day. Part of this relationship was an initial visit to each student's home.

Seeking Home-School Partnership

To make home visits manageable, I only visited the homes of the four to five ninth graders who were new to my advisory class. The first year I did this, there was a lot of pushback from students who weren't used to having a teacher visit their home, but in the second year, the tenth graders were able to sell the idea for me. They'd say, "Yeah, she came to our house, too. It was cool!"

Once there was buy-in from the class, the home visits were relatively easy to set up. The student would check with their parent and find a good time for me to stop by. Often the parents were relieved to hear that they didn't have to get off work early or find time to come to me. In fact, some of my students' parents began to request home visits, and I happily obliged. I always gave myself a full hour, but rarely needed it. I visited homes after school, in the evening, or on the weekend, whatever was best for the family. While I've heard the advice to conduct home visits with a partner teacher, I personally felt that going alone made it more comfortable for the family.

One time, when I was visiting the home of soccer star Angela, her mom had prepared a full meal for me, and the visit lasted well into the evening when she invited me into the back yard to pick lemons for my own family. After that visit, despite the language gap (I am proficient but not fluent in Spanish), whenever I saw Angela's mom at school events or at on-campus parent conferences, it was more like seeing an old friend. We were comfortable with each other. She felt accepted by me, and I felt respected by her. We were partners in her daughter's education.

Of course, it didn't always go so idyllically. Once I visited the home of Payton, whose mom was volatile and even hostile in meetings. I had met her several times before the home visit because Payton was in trouble at school early and often. At his house, I was formally welcomed but felt out of place as we sat in the living room and his numerous brothers clamored for his mother's attention. His mom told me about how three of Payton’s male role models had been killed in the last few years. I was glad to have had a glimpse at his home life, even though its reality made me feel more powerless than before. I imagined that as out of place as I felt in his mother's home, she must also feel the same way when visiting the school. If nothing else, the visit allowed me to empathize more clearly with Payton and his family.

The Power of a Visit

Whenever I coach new teachers, I encourage them to visit the homes of students as early as possible. It's just about the quickest way to understand a student better. Home visits should also be considered when a student is new to a school due to a transfer. While I made it a personal policy to visit the homes of all my ninth grade advisees, I also recognized that the impact of home visits could have been multiplied had it been a school-wide practice. Can you imagine if every ninth grader got a visit from his or her advisor, and if each family felt personally welcomed to the school? At my school, we've made time for on-campus parent conferences by modifying our schedules, but we haven't yet prioritized home visits. I think meeting parents and guardians where they are most comfortable could make a big difference. It certainly did for Louise Rocha-McCarthy and Annie Huynh.

In my own experience, visiting my student Diego at his house when he had been out of school for several weeks is what got him to come back to school, albeit briefly. I saw the power of home visits again this year when one of our most challenging students had missed several weeks of school. An email chain revealed that no one had been able to reach the family to find out why he had been away. Students were starting to ask where he was and why none of his teachers knew the answer. That very afternoon, three of his after-school mentors went together to his home and by the next day he was back in class. While the visit clearly had a positive impact on the young man, this impact rippled throughout school, too. Students saw without a doubt that the adults at school, not just classroom teachers, cared for even the most troubled student, and that being absent didn’t mean being invisible.

7 Suggestions for Visiting

Here are a few tips to get the most out of your home visit:

  1. Make home visits a part of your classroom or school culture so that no one feels singled out.
  2. Systematize who gets home visits to keep the practice manageable for you.
  3. Set aside strategic times during the year for home visits.
  4. Be flexible about when you do a home visit. Let the parent or guardian decide the date and time.
  5. Be prepared to share one concrete example of a way that you've seen the student shine.
  6. Don't discuss grades or behavior. This is a time for getting to know the family. Ask them open-ended questions. Ask your student to show you where they do their homework.
  7. Thank the family for allowing you in to their home.

Have you visited your students at home? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Amanda Issa's picture

I love that you wrote about this topic Jill, thank you! My credential program at Mills College spoke highly and often of the power of home visits. The literature read and the personal storied shared can not replace the experience of actually visiting a student's home yourself. My first home visit really changed the way I understood my students. Even with those I had taught for years, it wasn't until a home visit that I got to meet the other side of them. There is great value in stepping out of the classroom and into someone's home. I appreciate you writing about home visits. Makes me want to reorganize my time to make this special experience happen more often throughout the year.

Annie Hatch's picture

I couldn't agree more! As a teacher, home visits always sounds so laborious and stressful, but the reality is they are a great way to feel connected to students and families, and an easy way to learn how to best serve our individual students. And, they are always more fun and less painful than I expect. Thanks for the suggestions, and the kick in the pants to get out there and do some home visits, Jill!

Curt.Douglas's picture

Wow--I really appreciated this article, especially the list of tips at the end. I've struggled to figure out how to get home visits started at my school, even within one of our small learning communities. At a comprehensive high school of 1300 students, even a one-time visit for each of our 350 freshman feels initially unrealistic. But I'm realizing that at least in our 9th grade house, a small learning community that serves 120 of our freshman, we could start to build a culture of home visits for those students whose parents aren't yet connected--who haven't been able to attend back to school night, who haven't logged into PowerSchool (our school's website to show attendance and grades). And your article showcases how well a home visit can create that connection for parents who may have multiple legitimate barriers to coming to campus. You've inspired me to make the case again to my colleagues, and I plan on using this article to help them see the benefits.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

I would caution teachers to make sure they have a clear sense of role and purpose before heading into this process. As teachers, we can indeed support students around social and emotional skills and development, we can absolutely build relationship with parents and families, and we can be members of the same community. However, teachers are not social workers, and they are not psychologists, and they are not therapists. If I were embarking on this process, I would make sure families and students had a clear understanding of my role and purpose, and that I knew how to redirect the family to appropriate resources if I saw or became involved with anything that went beyond the scope of my role as a teacher.

More importantly, Jill, I really appreciate this post as a reminder that relationships are so foundational to everything we do. Whether it's through home visits, school meetings, other activities or just conversations, it's so important that we develop understanding and empathy for our students.

(1)
Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

A great share, Jill! Building those relationships and trust with not only the student but also their family is uber important. I know teachers need to prioritize who they need to visit - but how wonderful would it be for EVERY student to have their teacher visit them in their home?

There was a #PTchat a few years ago with Steve Constantino & Jimmy Casas on home visits. You can read the archive here: https://storify.com/Joe_Mazza/effective-home-visits-ptchat-archive-11-9-12

Alex, I think you are right in that everyone needs to understand the purpose of the visit (before you step foot into the house), and they need to trust that you aren't going in to judge them.

Laura Lou's picture

Thank you for this well-written and thought-provoking article. I had never considered home visits as a tool educators would have in their tool box. And, although Jill here makes a strong case- based on her experience- for home visits, I must say, I strongly feel that home visits should NOT be a tool in the educator's tool box.

I think home visits by a teacher (or advisor) to a student's home reinforces the power dynamic between teachers and students, rather than attempt to break it down. Students and teachers need to maintain boundaries not only for the sake of the mental health and personal life of the teacher, but also to protect students from making the mistake of thinking that they have an 'in' with the friendly teacher to negotiate on their behalf with other teachers, or adjust grades, or be more tolerate of late papers. Think of an office employee's boss calling and inviting themself over to the employee's house to build a better interpersonal relationship and get a better understanding of the homelife of the employee. Or if a doctor suggested a home visit to better understand why her/his patient was obese? How would Jill respond if Angela's mom (the mom who made a feast for Jill and then asked her to pick lemons from the backyard tree) called her up and asked for lenience for her daughter on certain assignments, based on the offering of a meal? In reviewing the ethnic background posted on the Life Academy website, I must ask: are all of the families perceiving the home visits the way that teachers such as Jill are intending? Are the families viewing the home visit as a way to curry favour with the teacher for their daughter or son? In other words, would putting out a big spread for the teacher be a good bribe to give my child a leg up with the teacher? What happens if a parents says no? Teachers are authority figures that- with the swipe of a pen or the stroke of a keyboard- can make or break a student, and influence their future. Even the most recalcitrant parent would feel some pressure to agree to a home visit.

As a previous commenter pointed out, most teachers are not trained in social work or counseling or psychology or anthropology, so having a teacher enter in to a private family home causes me some heart burn. What does a visiting teacher do if they see drug paraphenalia belonging to the student? What judgements are going? Will the teacher be more lenient with Payton because he has to compete for attention from his mother with his other siblings?

I think the goals of showing students that the adults in their life care for them is a noble goal. I just don't think home visits by teachers is the way to do it.

Jill E. Thomas's picture

Thanks for your post, Alex. I agree that it's important to know what your purpose is for the home visit. To the point about teachers not being social workers, therapists, or psychologists, I beg to differ. I started doing home visits because I was working at a small school where we had no counselors. Teachers were the counselors, and I do believe we also did the work of social workers. I certainly believe that some training for staff around how to successful conduct home visits is in order, as it does require all of the skills you point out. In my experience, teachers wear all of these hats and more.

Jill E. Thomas's picture

You raise some really interesting points, Laura Lou. Thanks for joining the conversation.

While teachers do have more power in the student-teacher relationship, I disagree that they can assign whatever grade they want. We actually have to prove our grades and keep archives of them for at least 7 years after a student was in our class. I personally do not adhere to hierarchical structures much at all (though I do know some parents and definitely students do). For me, visiting a student's home is a way to break down these hierarchical barriers. I had one really challenging student who I visited in the home. She was an angel at her house and in front of her parents, and it did ultimately shift our dynamic because I knew how she could choose to behave and she also saw me as a real human being making an effort to communicate with her parents in their native language rather than my own.

I actually like both of your examples, the doctor making a house call and the boss visiting his/her employee. I would welcome both. I do believe that personal relationships have more power that status and position, and I believe that we should know people we work directly with as well as we can. That doesn't mean we can't respect boundaries at the same time.

I did have a few families say no to home visits. Some parents preferred to come to the school. Some kids just could not stomach the idea of me coming to their house. I respected that and made other arrangements. Meeting with the family was the most important goal. Home visits are merely an option that I found to be a viable and helpful one in many circumstances. However, it is important to note that one of the key components of the school where I taught is that we were a SMALL school. Families were attracted to us because they wanted a place where their kids were known and they felt a part of the community. Nearly every student who has graduated from our school calls Life Academy their "family." There's no way we could create that sense of feeling without bridging home and school life. Home visits are one way to do that.

I'd like to add that I did home visits in the role of the advisor, which is different than the role of the teacher. Our school does not have guidance counselors. Instead, each teacher has 20 students they spend 4 years with. As an advisor, I played the role of counselor, social worker, advocate, and teacher. In fact, when problems between other teachers and an advisee arise, it's the advisors job to mediate it. Knowing the student as a full human being is crucial in doing this work.

I hear your point about the teacher's ability to conduct home visits in a manner that supports the relationship between school and home and leaves the family feeling supported rather than judged. Perhaps I was not clear that the home visit is not an attempt to see what a family is doing wrong or gawk at how they might be different than the teacher, culturally, linguistically, or socio-economically. Certainly some teacher swill be more skilled at this kind of work and all could benefit from some training on how to do it effectively.

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