For most ESL educators, home visits are becoming more common. The importance of home visits is that they help to open the lines of communication between students’ parents and classroom teachers. One difficulty is their time-consuming nature. However, the positive outcomes pay off in the end.
We all know that being an ESL teacher goes far beyond the classroom; we are also advocates for our students. The home visit, through the eyes of the parents, establishes you as a contact who is willing to advocate for their child(ren). This will pay off when you want parents to come to conferences or special events in the school. They will come because your initial contact made them feel comfortable in the environment and connected to your classroom.
Here are a few things to consider when doing a home visit:
- Communicate positivity. Parents may be reluctant to respond at first, as they may feel that the meeting will be about negative or unwelcomed actions of their child. Make sure you are informing parents that this is something you are doing with each of your students’ families, and this fear will go away as they will hear from other families that you called as well.
- Bring a gift for each child in the family. I hoard kid’s books from consignment shops, Goodwill and the Scholastic warehouse sales (if you’re fortunate enough to live near a Scholastic warehouse). Bringing a gift for each child in the family does a few things. It lets the parents know that you have a relationship with their child (your student) and that you know about his or her older/younger siblings or family members in the house. Next, it shows the family that you are here to advocate for them. An extra benefit is that one day you may have the younger family members in your classroom, and they will remember you as the kind teacher who brought them a present — a positive relationship has already been started before he or she enters your classroom.
- Bring a gift for the house. For many of my families, I bring some delicious loose-leaf tea. This is a gift that is acceptable in many cultures and is not offensive to any that I know of. I explain to them that I spent time in China and Taiwan which developed my love of tea, and I wanted to share with them something that I enjoy. That way, there is a personal story. The advantage to this personal story is that it shares a bit of information about me, so they feel that I am opening up. As a private person, I prefer not to mention much regarding my personal life to students or their families. Therefore, sharing this bit of information helps make them more comfortable with me because now they have learned something about me. This is an important first step if you want to get past polite formalities at the home visit.
- Be aware of the surroundings and customs. If everyone in the house is barefoot, take off your shoes. If each person is wearing house slippers, take off your shoes and politely ask if there are guest slippers to be worn. If everyone is finishing their coffee, tea, drinks, or whatever the family provides, you should do the same. Do a little bit of research before the visit, though, regarding their culture. For example, during my time in Taiwan, I was visited by one of my Japanese student’s families. As they left my classroom, they bowed. I bowed in return. We continued bowing for what felt like a full minute until my co-teacher quietly informed me that they would not stop until I choose to stop. If I had researched customs ahead of time, I would not have been awkwardly bowing nearly as much.
- Say thank you. A “thank you note” or call goes a long way. Within a few days after the home visit, write the family a personal, hand-written thank you note. This thank you note should include something that you connected with the function. Do make sure that you include your contact information again in the thank you cards. The more times you give parents your contact information, the more likely they will contact you.
- Offer meeting options. Provide the opportunity to meet parents at venues outside their homes. One reason that a family may be reluctant to respond to your initial request is that they may not want to invite someone into their home. Offer in your initial letter to the family to meet at their house or a convenient location of their choosing. I have had families ask me to meet them at a local coffee house or at their family restaurant because it was easier for them. That is fine. The goal of this initial visit is to meet the family and open the lines of communication. This can be done anywhere.
- Be persistent. I had a student who came from a single parent home. This student’s parent worked at a local grocery store in the city where I was teaching. Commonly this parent worked double shifts, and was off work at times when the children (my student and his siblings) were asleep. Therefore, meeting at his house was not an option, and he was not responding quickly to my messages. I then asked and was able to set up a time to meet with him during his lunch break. The store he worked at had a cafeteria with cold and hot food items for purchase. I met him in the cafeteria, purchased his dinner, and we had a lovely conversation about his hard-working, diligent son, soccer, the local music scene and when to use light vs dark gravy. It was an nontraditional way to have a home visit, but you could tell this father appreciated the time I took to make that relationship happen. He was also very active during the school year, and I saw him numerous other times at events. I am confident that he would not have been as active at school events if this home visit had not happened.
Home visits are a challenge, but they are one of my favorite aspects of education. I learn so much during each round of home visits regarding my students, their families and the wonderful cultures and languages that they bring to the classroom.
Zachary Smith is the ELL teacher at Ottumwa High School in Ottumwa, Iowa. If you have any questions regarding home visits and best practices, you are invited to contact Zach at email@example.com or via Twitter @zas85.