Breaking through bias with Parent/Teacher Home Visits

By Nick Faber

Duluth, Minn., teachers Jodi Timmersman (left) and Katie Hutchinson participate in home visits

Two white middle school teachers walk up to a student’s home in Saint Paul, Minn. The community they are visiting is reflective of their school community: high poverty and primarily families of color. Though the teachers have taught here for years, this is their first time entering a home in this neighborhood.

There are two young men hanging out on the porch who nod as the teachers approach, but say nothing as they walk up and knock on the door. The student answers and welcomes her teachers in with a smile and excitement. They sit with her mom in the living room and for the next 45 minutes, she talks with the teachers about her dreams for her child and the concerns she has for her entering the high school next year. She’s worried that the high school teachers don’t care about the kids like they do at this school, where the teachers come out to visit your house. They talk about their hopes for what the student is able to achieve this year, and about what school was like for Mom when she was in middle school. Mostly, they just have heartfelt conversations around what they all have as a common interest — their student’s success in school and life.

Outside, after the visit, the teachers are energized and excited. As white middle-class teachers, they were outside of their comfort zone, but they were surprised how quickly they became comfortable. They are used to talking to parents within the “safety” of their classroom. But here, they were somewhere new, somewhere the parent and student felt more comfortable. In the end, they walked away feeling they had not only a better understanding about this student and her family, but also about themselves.

And that’s the point.

At the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, the Parent/Teacher Home Visit initiative has been a key for us as a union to help teachers break down the implicit bias they may have of the students who are in their classroom and the communities where they live. Seventy-five percent of our home visitors say that the visits help break down assumptions they may have about their students and families, and 93 percent say the visits help them learn more about their students. This is powerful and important union work.

Faber explains benefits of Parent/Teacher Home Visits to colleagues

It’s also been a way to surface parent leaders who stand with us powerfully as we fight for the schools our kids deserve, and push us in places we need to do better. And the project has demonstrated that it has worked to break down unhelpful assumptions that parents hold about us.

This work can be uncomfortable at times. It can be scary at times. The same feelings are being felt by our parents, too. But we are at a unique moment. If there was ever a time where our need to understand each other was vitally important, it is now. If there was ever a time for members of our union to understand and feel comfortable in the community, it is now.

It is now, when we have an administration that has done its best to divide us as a country, that our unions must find ways to bridge that false divide and learn about our families and students in real ways — through building relationships. Only so much can be learned at a three-hour or three-day training. Real learning about who we are and what we have in common happens beyond the school walls; it happens on the streets and in the homes where our students live.

Nick Faber, a National Board-certified teacher and vice president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, is board president of the national Parent Teacher Home Visits program.