Getting to Know You: Home Visits Help Teachers and Parents Become Super Partners

Nick Faber helped establish a local home visit project because he believes that, when a teacher knows his student's family, together they are the best partners in that child's learning. This is Nick's story.
Teacher Walks with Student

Nick Faber walks with a student and his family.

Photo by John Doman/St. Paul Pioneer Press

 

 

It gets cold here in Saint Paul. Snow banks grow up and out all winter long, packing the streets and turning them into slippery, nearly one-lane roads. But the weather does not cancel our home visits.

A fellow teacher and I hike over a mound of snow to reach Marcus’ duplex apartment. His mom emerges, warmed by the light bulb above the front porch. We've seen Marcus' mom at a few parent-teacher nights and conferences, but we introduce ourselves again. Though she looks tired, her eyes greet us happily.

After pleasantries about the frosty weather, we hang our coats and warm our noses on the smell of curried soup. The apartment is sparsely furnished and the carpet is worn. In the background, Marcus tends to a pet gecko, feeding it tiny crickets with the utmost care. Books spill out of the backpack at his feet. They’re about lizards, snakes, and other reptiles and amphibians. I didn’t realize Marcus was so interested in reptiles and amphibians—important information for me to know as his science teacher.

A mother’s hopes and dreams

 

We sit with Marcus' mom on a bony sofa and ask about her hopes and dreams for her son. Her face lights up as she tells me she wants Marcus to go to college and become a doctor, but for this particular school year, she wants him to stay out of trouble and make friends.

I ask her what school was like for her when she was Marcus’ age. She says she has fond memories of recess and friendships, but in the classroom she got in trouble because she couldn’t sit still that long. She hopes Marcus gets a chance to move in school, and we reassure her that he does.

An hour passes quickly. My colleague and I express our desire to continue the conversation so we can help Marcus be the best learner and person he can be. We thank his mom for welcoming us into her home.

My colleague and I express our desire to continue the conversation so we can help Marcus be the best learner and person he can be.

On the drive back to school, my colleague and I talk through what we now know about Marcus that can help us meet his individual needs in the classroom. We also reflect on what we learned about Marcus’ mom that can assist us in building a solid, trusting relationship with her and Marcus. Another successful visit for the Saint Paul chapter of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project.

Working separately, not together

In 1996, the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP) was established in Sacramento, California. The founding parents wanted to build a strong relationship with their children’s teachers instead of blaming one another for their children’s poor academic performance. When I first heard of the project in 2010, I was teaching at a community school and was a leader in my local teacher’s union, the Saint Paul Federation for Teachers (SPFT).

The families my school district serves are beautifully diverse. Over 100 languages and dialects are spoken by our students, and 33 percent of them are English Language Learners. Over 70 percent district-wide qualify for free or reduced lunch—at my school, 98 percent—and we have one of the widest achievement gaps in the country. Our teachers are trying to close that gap by all means possible, including visiting families at home through the PTHVP.

Colleague

A colleague stands before pictures from home visits at John A. Johnson Elementary, the school in Saint Paul where Nick started the PTHVP chapter.

photo courtesy of Nick Faber

I knew I wanted to start a chapter of the Home Visit Project in Saint Paul because I saw our parents and families as an asset from whom we teachers could learn and be partners with. To be clear, this was not some sort of missionary or rescue work. This was about partnership. Parents could teach us many things that would help us teach their children better, and like us, they truly cared. But at my school, parents and teachers were working separately.

Parents were constantly in our school building because it also housed wraparound services (dental clinic, family center, mental health resources). You'd find them interacting with other members of the school community but not with us teachers. Few parents attended school-sponsored parent nights. To not have a relationship with our students' parents felt so wrong. Something had to change.

Inspired by the success of PTHVP in other parts of the country, a small group of teachers took the bold leap and started the Saint Paul chapter of the PTHVP so that we could work with parents on something we both care about—the success of their children, our students.

Suspicions, nerves, and cockroaches

Our chapter was not easy to start. At first, parents were suspicious. Some were hesitant due to negative experiences from social services and law enforcement. Many couldn't figure out why we wanted to come to their house, and openly questioned our motives. Others turned us down for fear we’d judge and talk down to them.

At first, many parents questioned our motives. Some turned us down for fear we'd judge them.

Teachers were nervous too. They adore the students they teach. And, they worried about accidentally saying something offensive or dealing with unwanted cigarette smoke, barking dogs—even cockroaches.

Time and money brought further complications. Many of our students' parents worked multiple jobs, and the hours they worked often coincided with the hours our teachers were available. Though the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project is inexpensive and replicable, our school needed funding for training sessions and teacher stipends.

Entering into success

The Saint Paul PTHVP was realized thanks to the persistence of my union, the Saint Paul Federation for Teachers. The SPFT, together with a band of dedicated parents and teachers, successfully fought for the project during contract negotiations with our sometimes-resistant school district. Today, the union pays for training costs, and the district pays for teachers’ stipends.

This partnership has shined a new light on the teacher’s union. Due to PTHVP and other ways we engage the community, SPFT is now seen as more than interested in “bread-and-butter” issues, like salaries and cost-of-living adjustments. It’s seen as genuinely caring about improving students’ learning. By supporting home visits, which in turn support learning, the union is regarded by parents more positively and as a lateral partner in education. Today, you’ll find more parents joining teachers at "walk-in" rallies for union proposals, such as smaller class size.

Teacher Training

Two home-visit veterans introduce the steps of a visit to other teachers during a training session.

photo courtesy of Nick Faber

The Project’s invitation to parents to talk about their child—their interests, hopes, and fears—encouraged more open-mindedness in parents and less suspicion. On the phone, we'll say, "This visit is not about your daughter's grades or performance. We aren't singling you out because she’s in trouble. We simply want to get to know you better so, together, we can better support her."

And what about teachers' worries of accidentally offending, of having to politely eat something they'd rather not? These worries have been released through pre-visit training sessions, where teachers can candidly talk through their fears and assumptions. We find that this lay-it-on-the-table dialogue helps our trainers—veteran home-visiting teachers and parents—connect with new teachers on how to respond respectfully.

Revisiting Marcus

By the time the curbside snow has melted into grassy slush, Marcus is doing better in school. He shows more interest in learning because we know what interests him—reptiles! And after I heard Marcus’ mom’s hope for him to move around in school, I worked with Marcus on ways he could be less constrained by a desk and freer to learn independently.

Research has shown students of home-visiting teachers to be more successful in school.

On the whole, research has shown students of home-visiting teachers to be more successful in school. Behavior referrals and absenteeism go down, and achievement goes up.

Our home visits enable teachers to get to know their students personally—information they can’t get from a test. And at our parent-teacher nights, we see more familiar faces in the crowd.

We realize that we make unfavorable assumptions about others when we haven’t been to their houses or heard their stories. The Home Visit Project breaks down these stereotypes and sets up collaborative relationships between parents and teachers, the two groups of people who love, care for, and spend time with students most.


6 Essential Elements for Starting a Home Visit Program

  1. An Interested Staff. Introduce the concept to school staff and get a sense of the interest in doing an introductory training. About 50 percent of the staff or more is enough to do a training. The rest usually come on board as soon as they see the benefits of the program—connected relationships with families and students, and improvements in classroom practice and student learning.
  2. Training. Contact the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project to arrange for a training. The four-hour training not only covers logistics and practical skills needed but also addresses fears based on assumptions that are changed through the process of making a visit. Once trained, decide if your group wants to formally establish a home visit program.
  3. Collaborative, committed partners. Identify and recruit partners for your home visit program. Strong programs usually are made of three groups: a school district, a community organization that includes parents, and the teacher's union.
  4. Stable funding. Get commitments from organizations within and outside of your school district for training and teacher stipends. With the help of these partners, determine the budget and the funding sources, such as Title I, for your program.
  5. Informed families. Communicate to families about the intentions behind the home visits. These visits are about getting to know them and their children better—not to check up because their student’s in trouble. Having a clear understanding will help to encourage families to participate and to make the experience more comfortable for families and teachers.
  6. Time for visits and reflection. Set a schedule for the visits, and for reflection and evaluation. Most programs do one round of visits in the fall and one in the spring. Get out there and visit! And welcome opportunities to share experiences with other home visiting teachers to applaud successes, problem-solve, and improve future visits.
    Home Visit Project training team

    Nick Faber stands with his teacher training team.

    photo courtesy of Nick Faber


    For more information on the Saint Paul Parent/Teacher Home chapter and keys to its success, see the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers’ evaluation of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project.

    To learn more about the National Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project, visit http://www.pthvp.org.

     

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