There I was, standing in front of 42 seventh graders at Moses Garoëb Primary School, with absolutely nothing left to say on the subject. The lesson hadn’t quite gone as planned. I had intended on facilitating a rich discussion about body image and self-esteem, only to find that the kids were not at all interested in this topic. Instead, I stood in defeat before them, listening to them call out, “Miss, what kind of shampoo do you have?” and “Miss! Do you know Brad Pitt?” My impassioned speech on positive self-worth stayed lodged in my throat as they continued.
“Miss, is all your family rich?”
“Your hair is so pretty, miss!”
“I wish I could have a dress like yours, miss!”
In Namibia, Africa, I was clearly a minority. Treated like celebrities by the students, the group of young teachers I had traveled with all struggling similarly: although clearly beloved, the kids just weren’t buying into our lessons. They didn’t want to hear that we were teachers with knowledge to impart; they wanted to steal our beauty secrets before we left. “Build those relationships,” our professor told us in the evenings. “Reciprocate. If they want to know you, then you better get to know them.”
Build relationships? The relationship I had with these students was a relentless Q and A session every time we met. I had no idea what to ask them besides what hobbies they had…and even then, the question rang hollow. Plus, there were 42 of them! In ONE period. I taught three periods a day with a similar numbers of students. How on Earth could I get to know these kids and teach? We had nothing in common. I hardly knew anything about their culture, about their languages, about their lifestyles. Hearing details about life’s realities here was my greatest fear. I was uncomfortable driving through their town and could only imagine the stories they would tell me. I just wanted to teach. Teach and remain safely and conveniently detached.
It wasn’t until one day, a favorite student of mine spontaneously invited me to her house. “I want you to meet my mother,” she said, excitedly pulling my hand. “What, now?” I asked, bewildered. It was lunch time, and the students were all milling around the center courtyard, eating and kicking soccer balls around. Martha laughed and pulled at my hand harder. “She wants to know you! And my little sister wants to know you too!”
Martha was sweet and soft and always made me laugh. She loved books. Any books, as they were in short supply here. Any book she held was magic in her hands. She would say to me, “You’re doing good, miss,” during the daily walks around the classroom, probably sensing my lack of confidence. “It is a hard job.” Martha had a couple of girls who hung around her but she seemed to gravitate to me during breaks and passing periods, asking me about college and describing what she wanted to study when she got to the University of Namibia. She was that kid. The #WhyITeach kid.
The sun was hot and our surroundings were loud and busy; no one would notice our departure. I was nervous, but I so genuinely wanted to know where this rose among daisies had come from. I couldn’t disappoint the only child who gave me the time of day, so we ran. We ran through sharp blades of dry grass, ducked under a broken fence, pushed past two metal gates, and stood. Stood before her humble home in Katutura, the place where people do not want to live. Martha grinned at me. “This is my home, miss,” she said.
* * *
The following day, a boy called Tio walked right up to me and said, “You visited a house. Here.” It wasn’t a question. The kids behind Tio were buzzing, wide-eyed and giggly. “Our houses are ugly,” one kid said, matter-of-factly. “There is nothing here.” I laughed.
“Are you kidding? I’m a writer. Through a writer’s eyes, everything is beautiful.” It was a cliche, a cheesy line, but how do you put a positive spin on such distressing poverty? The kids knew what it was.
“Look, these houses are part of your beautiful village. And your village will always be a part of you, and I like you. All of you. So I love these houses, and I loved meeting Martha’s family. And I’m going to write about them and put it my blog.” The kids were astounded.
“A blog on the internet?“
“Miss, you will say that our houses are beautiful?”
“It’s different where I live, and people like different.”
You can imagine, from that movie-perfect moment, that our relationships changed. The learners at Moses Garoëb quickly spread the word that the American teachers would go to their houses if you invited them! They were amazed that we valued their lives, their villages, their families. Amazed that we wanted to know about them, instead of the other way around.
* * *
In my district, and in many districts across the country, the difference in socioeconomic status between teachers and families is extremely apparent. It’s apparent when the teacher corrects the student’s informal register of speech (guilty). It’s apparent when the teacher becomes frustrated by the student’s lack of concentration (guilty again). It’s apparent when the same students are constantly spending their days in the office due to misbehavior. Sound familiar? If your district has done any work towards understanding how to teach kids living in poverty, you know the list goes on. Although research shows that conducting home visits increases student participation, increases parent involvement, and decreases behavior issues, they are certainly not the norm.
Part of the McCleary decision in Washington State actually funds something called WAKids, where kindergarten teachers have the opportunity to meet with families before the school year begins in order to better know the child. This is as close as I have come to a home visit in my career in Washington State. It’s not a bad compromise– I get 30 minutes to interview a family before I take on their child for the year; much more time than any other teacher in any other grade is typically granted. But is the impact the same? I don’t think so.
* * *
Now, it’s your turn: what are your thoughts on home visits? Are they typical where you are? Are they rare? Do you think your students would benefit from such an interaction? Is there time? How do your administrators feel about making home visits a part of your school culture? If you teach kindergarten, how do you feel about the WAKids conferences?
Please leave a comment below…I’d love to hear what’s happening around the state!
My dog also has an Instagram, and it's better than anyone's. @mrdarcy_theiggy
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