NPR wasn’t telling the whole story in their article last Friday about the benefits of teachers visiting their students’ homes (see Knock, Knock, Teacher’s Here: The Power of Home Visits). Home visits are nothing new and have often been touted as a great way for white, middle-class teachers to see, first-hand, the poverty that is faced by many students – especially minority students. NPR bought into this idea while following a group of teachers and administrators from Hobgood Elementary school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Home visits ignore the need for privacy while simultaneously promoting inappropriate relationships between teachers and students. Although it is incredibly important for teachers to learn about their students and be empathetic towards the harsh and stressful living conditions that students might be struggling in, home visits are not necessarily the answer. Especially when the home visits are unannounced as they were in Murfreesboro. White, middle-class America doesn’t like it when people show up at their door unannounced – why would we presume that it is different when we are the ones visiting people living in poverty?
White, middle-class America doesn’t like it when people show up at their door unannounced – why would we presume that it is different when we are the ones visiting people living in poverty?
The school district I work for also encourages teachers to do home visits. In fact, they offer teachers extra money to do them. And many teachers, strapped for cash, reluctantly, awkwardly visit students’ houses. Even at the high school level.
Many of my colleagues, though, refuse to do it. It is weird and awkward, but more importantly, at the high school level, it is completely inappropriate. Teachers should not be building such personal relationships with the children. And they shouldn’t be coerced by their school district to put themselves in a position where a teenager might misunderstand the relationship.
Teachers are not – but should be – trained in social work. Before I became a teacher, I was a social worker for teenagers in foster care. The training of a social worker is much, much different than the training of a teacher. Which is weird because the positions have a whole lot of overlap. Social workers are trained to always remain objective. Never give hugs. Never let kids think that you are their parent, friend, mentor, confidante. Because what happens when you quit your job? Or when the kid moves to a different home? You have just broken that kid’s heart all over again.
This isn’t to say that social workers aren’t empathetic – they have to be. But at the forefront of the relationship is the idea that the social worker is there to help the kid improve his or her life. Sometimes that means finding an adoptive home. Sometimes it means getting a job, finishing high school, and just generally preparing to transition into adulthood alone. Sometimes (or always, really) it means working on social skills and emotional issues, and confronting past trauma. All of this is done without becoming friends, and social workers are trained to never share anything personal about their own lives. Kids don’t learn from hearing other people’s stories – they learn from talking through their own stories and problems.
Teachers snapchat with their students, text with their students,
and pose for candid pictures with their students.
Meanwhile, teachers are typically not taught to leave their personal lives at home. They tell students about their spouses, their kids, their history. While the occasional story might help to build rapport or demonstrate an example of a concept that is being discussed in class, typically, all of this personal information-giving just changes the relationship from a teacher-student relationship to a friend-friend relationship – or worse, makes it all about the teacher when it should be all about the student.
For some reason, education circles don’t seem to be discussing the need for professional boundaries. In fact, as the NPR article mentioned, home visits are being pushed by a lot of school districts and professional organizations. Further, teachers are encouraged to develop even more personal relationships with the kids through coaching sports, advising clubs, and tutoring, in addition to doing home visits. These types of activities nearly necessitate that the teacher establish an incredibly personal relationship with the students. In my school district, I see teachers snapchat with their students, text with their students, and throw their arms around students for candid pictures to be posted on social media.
While it’s definitely important for teachers to build rapport and let the kids know that teachers care about them, it’s equally important to not cross that boundary from teacher to friend. As a society, we know where that road leads, yet we are constantly surprised when we hear about sexual boundaries being crossed. Teachers are constantly reminded to be wary of that sexual boundary, but we’re focusing on the wrong boundary line – if we start training teachers like we train social workers, we could focus on not crossing the “friend” boundary line, thus taking the sexual boundary line off the table. Certainly, regardless of how personal the relationship becomes between teacher and student, most teachers would never cross the sexual boundaries of the student anyhow. But students can easily mistake kindness and close friendship for romance. And even if the relationship doesn’t become inappropriate in that sense, we are still encouraging teachers to have the wrong type of relationship with our students. Like social workers, teachers should be empathetic and caring, but the relationship should remain objective and professional – not personal.
Teachers are constantly reminded to be wary of that sexual boundary,
but we’re focusing on the wrong boundary line – if we start training teachers like we train
social workers, we could focus on not crossing the “friend” boundary line,
thus taking the sexual boundary line off the table.
Many parents agree that home visits are weird on their end as well. They wonder: Am I supposed to entertain the teacher? Should I leave the teacher alone with my child? Do I need to clean up my house first? Should I provide dinner? What if the teacher disagrees with my religious practices or my discipline methods?
I can only imagine that families who are living in poverty have even bigger concerns about teachers visiting their houses – especially unannounced. After all, teachers are mandatory reporters. This means that even if the teachers SUSPECTS that a child might be being abused or neglected, they are required by law to report it. A teacher visiting a child’s house will have to make a million decisions during that visit – and the parents know it. They know that teachers call CPS. A teacher might be asking him/herself: Is this house too filthy? Are these people too poor to provide for their children? Is the way they are interacting with their children a cultural thing or is this abuse? The electricity has been shut off – should I intervene in some way?