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A Recipe for Home Visits: 1 Afternoon, 2 Neighborhoods, 4 Families & Frijoles

On the Colorado eastern plains, well beyond the buzz of the metro Denver area, there is a school. My school.

The new, two-story building serves over 1,100 students in preschool through eighth grade. While the school itself is only four years old, the island of mobile classrooms to the east signal to visitors we have reached enrollment capacity. The expansive boundaries and four diverse neighborhoods that feed to the school include a middle class suburban housing community, an air force base, and two trailer parks along the Colfax corridor, one on the east and one on the west.

I have written before about the benefits of looping with students. I believe that strong relationships with families are a critical component to student success. I frequently communicate with parents via email and phone calls, and I try to invite families into the classroom for author’s chair events and literacy celebrations.

But I’m embarrassed to admit that until last week, the only neighborhood of the four feeder communities I had “visited” is the suburban housing development I drive through each day to reach the school’s parking lot.

With the help of a multilingual colleague, a teacher workday, and a few phone calls, we visited four families in two different neighborhoods over the course of an afternoon. We intentionally selected families who were unable to make the last round of parent/teacher conferences; families we don’t see at school functions, not because they don’t care, but because of complicated work schedules or graveyard shifts, transportation issues, language barriers, or a combination of obstacles.  

Here’s what I learned from my first round of home visits:

·      The language of love is universal

I carpooled with a colleague who is fluent in four languages, including English and Spanish. While I only speak English, after the first visit it became very easy to read the thoughts and feelings of the parents through body language and facial expressions. As we would with any conversation, we began with each student’s strengths. Pride and love are easily revealed through smiles and intonation, and disappointment can be inferred through a stern glance exchanged between a child and his mother. 

In the words of my home visit partner, science teacher Lucia Gaspar-Domingo, 

Our kids face an abundance of social factors. However, they come to school and try to learn which should be cause for celebration. Teachers can make assumptions when parents are not involved in school activities. But in each home visit, parents encouraged their child to perform well in school.” 

While each family is unique, all families share a commitment to their child’s education, and this commitment was palpable in each home visit.

·      Thirty minutes can easily turn into three hours

Our second visit landed us in the other trailer park neighborhood that feeds to our school. The family recently moved in so furniture was scarce, but we were greeted with enthusiasm and warm embraces. The social seventh grader led the discussion and introduced us to her mother and four siblings, who range in age from one to sixteen years old. Three hours later, our bellies were full of frijoles (beans), spicy chicken, and guacamole, and we felt like part of the family. We stayed so long that we witnessed naps, diaper changes, cooking, cleaning, and many conversations across the three generations. The mother openly shared the strengths and challenges of the school’s parent outreach efforts so far, and offered specific ideas for engaging Spanish speaking households. We learned more from her in one afternoon than we would have in years of traditional parent/teacher conferences.

·      Teachers should feel uncomfortable sometimes

Spanish is the primary language in three of the four households we visited. So I spent a significant part of the day in the role of a “second language learner,” listening carefully for key words and familiar cognates, observing body language and speaking as little as possible, knowing my colleague or the student would need to translate on my behalf. This forced me to be present in a way that is difficult when conversations take place on school grounds. Changing the setting by visiting my students’ homes made me feel vulnerable, nervous, and even uncomfortable at times. It shifted the inherent power structure between school and the communities our school serves. It made me feel the way I imagine many families feel when they step on school property—like they are visitors in unfamiliar territory.

After touring two neighborhoods and visiting four homes over the course of five hours we were exhausted and full, both literally and spiritually. I’m glad I got out of my classroom and into the neighborhoods where my seventh graders live, work and play. Now, when my students talk about the “little store” on the corner, or the soccer field by the clubhouse, I will conjure a mental image from firsthand experience.

I hope to make home visits a regular part of my practice.

Next stop: Buckley Air Force Base. 

10 Comments

Angie Miller commented on March 26, 2014 at 4:39pm:

Love this!

Family connections are so important in education, and while home visits are not a reality for many of us, they are reminders of the connections we must attempt to make with our children's families. I have yet to meet a parent who doesn't care--no matter how many decisions I disagree with or no matter what their living conditions are--they still care and they still want the best for their children!

Jessica Cuthbertson Jessica Cuthbertson commented on March 26, 2014 at 10:46pm:

Family Connections = Professional Learning?

Thanks, Angie! I wholeheartedly agree -- family and parent connections and communication are invaluable to us as educators.  We can't (and shouldn't) do this work alone! Families are our students' primary advocate, yet too often we work in isolation at the school level.

I wonder -- what are the barriers to home visits and deeper family/school connections across the public education system and spectrum? What if professional development and work days were all reframed as opportunities to explore our communities and collaborate on projects to benefit  our neighborhoods and schools? That's an in-service I'd sign up for -- with or without attached credit hours! 

Laura LA commented on March 30, 2014 at 10:32am:

Professional Community

Love that idea of making home visits and community outreach a part of in-service work. It would go a long way toward making the "Professional Community" we work so hard to foster into a part of the "School Communinty" which includes a wider circle of members. We have Professional Days once a month where students are released 2 hours early and we work together on one aspect of learning related to our school improvement goals. Since better two-way communication with families is one of our goals, it would be hugely valuable to spend some of that time visitng homes and community centers, and even touring the neighborhood with residents. 

Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

Jessica Cuthbertson Jessica Cuthbertson commented on March 30, 2014 at 6:15pm:

Release Time Advocacy

Excellent, Laura! (Thank you for reading and commenting! :)

I'm so glad you can easily envision a way to integrate more home and neighborhood visits into your school's professional learning structure(s) to increase two-way communication between families and staff members!  Once the time/space structure is in place, generally the advocacy and allocation of that time and space for something purposeful like home visits takes care of itself (I hope this is the case at your school! :) 

Also, I hope you will report back some of the results of your efforts and how this shifts and impacts the culture of your school/community :).

John Visel commented on March 27, 2014 at 11:10am:

Yes!

I loved reading your article.  To me, it was a wonderful reminder that we only see a small part of each child's experience.  And it's up to us to go out and find those other pieces.  Kudos to you for stepping out to do this.   

What a worthy investment of your time.  For those who may not be able to do home visits, I would heartily recommend eating lunch with a child.  As a teacher with 400+ students, I found this is a wonderful way to connect and find out what's important to that student.  Still not on par with a home visit, but at least it's a connection.

Again, thanks for an inspirational read.

John

Jessica Cuthbertson Jessica Cuthbertson commented on March 27, 2014 at 11:21am:

The power of food and conversation...

Thank you, John, for reading and commenting.

I love the idea of having lunch with a student (or group of students) and the power of connecting with kids over food and conversation. Meals are an easy way for us to come together and share things that we often don't make time for in the hustle and bustle of an average school day. Thanks for reminding readers that there are all sorts of opportunities (within and beyond the school day) for teachers to connect with students and their families/lives outside of school. 

As a team we have over 200 7th and 8th graders so we decided to start small -- partnering with a colleague and prioritizing a maximum of 5 students/families for home visits in this initial experiment. I could not have done this without the support of my multilingual colleague, and we were blessed with a teacher work day which we chose to use to schedule our visits back-to-back in one afternoon/evening. It was indeed, completely worth the time and effort, and I'm now trying to think of ways to make home visits more "mainstream," particularly early in the school year. For example, having one of our neighborhood clubhouses or parks serve as a central meeting location and hosting a community BBQ in place of a staff inservice would likely be a much better use of staff time, than sitting through PowerPoint after PowerPoint of logistics in those days before school gets started :). 

This makes me wonder: Are there other ways we can push on the system so that connecting with families is seen as an integral (and protected) part of our work day and professional learning plans and not something extra, or in addition to, or on top of a full teaching load?

Paul Goodland commented on April 3, 2014 at 10:39pm:

My Home Visit Experience

Many years ago, when I first taught public high school in Florida, I had a particularly challenging year.  For one, I was an inexperienced teacher, and shutter to think what I thought passed for good teaching back then.  I knew nothing about cooperative learning and very little about engagement back then.  And I was teaching chemistry in a former wood shop, and algebra in an annex to the auditorium, with no desks or blackboards.  The students picked up boards as they came in to have something to write on, and I had a small, wheeled blackboard to perform miracles on.  

Needless to say, as spring time of year approached, I was worried about how prepared my students were for their year-end exams.  I had finished coaching football and basketball, and had evenings free again.  I had been tutoring students for years, even before I decided to be a teacher (while still in college), and felt I could help them if I could get some one-on-one time.  So I decided to try something I had never heard of - home visits, kept short, to meet parents, to show them what were are doing, and to spend some individual time with my kids.  So I sent out a letter to all my parents.  My wife thought I was crazy, and my teaching colleagues thought I must be trying to earn points with the principal.  (Trust me, I wasn't.)

My expectations were low.  I thought 3 or 4 parents would take me up on this, but 19 did.  My first instinct was to bail... how could I see them all?  But I came up with a Tuesday-Thursday schedule that got me to everyone.  I would limit the visits to 20 minutes, as I had students every half hour. 

What happened was very different than what I expected.  I got the education.  I found out the angry, smart-alec but bright boy taking algebra for the third time had parents that were absent most of the time, and cruel to him when around.  They were a wealthy family (many of the these kids had homes on the Gulf of Mexico) but clearly he was in crisis.  My attitude toward him changed instantly, and our relationship in class immediately became one of more mutual respect.  He started working harder and passed!

I learned a great deal about the supports (or lack thereof) students had at home.  It helped me to understand what I needed to do more of, especially individual assessments of my students.  The most striking case was a quiet student named Sandra, who missed a lot of school, and at times seemed not to care.  The first time I went to see her, her parents weren't there, but 8 other kids were.  She was taking care of a large extended family, including a grandfather, until after 11 p.m., 5 nights a week.  Of course, I had to reschedule, and set up special weekend time when her mother was there, but I felt awful for how I had perceived her as a lazy student before.  I was very happy to spend part of my Saturday morning helping her, and she was easily the most appreciative student of them all. 

I know finding the time to do something like this is difficult and different than what people are doing today, but I found these to be one of the best learning experiences I have had as a teacher. 

Jessica Cuthbertson Jessica Cuthbertson commented on April 7, 2014 at 6:55pm:

Thanks for sharing your story...

Paul,

Thanks for sharing your home visit story and the results and impact these experiences had on you...what an awesome undertaking so early in your teaching career! I love this quote: "What happened was very different than what I expected. I got the education." That was certainly my experience as well -- and I think this is critical (teachers learning outside of their classrooms in different contexts) for all teachers. 

Do you still do home visits? The anecdotes you shared above are powerful -- sounds like a blog post, series of articles (or book?) in the making!? :)

Anna Sommerhauser commented on April 7, 2014 at 5:10pm:

Home Visits for All

I loved reading your article and the comments made.  Lucia, the science teacher, who was quoted in the article said it perfectly.  Most famillies want the best for their kids and are doing what they can to support that end.  In a previous district, they required one conferences each year be a home visit.  It was a very powerful experience that connected the school and our families together.

Thanks for sharing your story!

Jessica Cuthbertson Jessica Cuthbertson commented on April 8, 2014 at 5:54pm:

Re-imagining P/T Conferences

Thank you, Anna. When viewed through the lens of equity and opportunity, our schools should serve as vital and welcoming community centers. I think re-imagining traditional parent/teacher conferences as community/school visits (including home visits) would be one amazing step in the right direction. (I think your previous district was on to something important!) 

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