“I could’ve done a million parent-teacher conferences, and not gained what I gained in a five- to ten-minute visit in their home. They would’ve never been able to give me that information. That has been the biggest blessing for me.”
Yanira Alfonso teaches English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at Dalton Middle School. Yesterday, she completed a monumental project several months in the making: Visiting the home of every single one of her students.
Over the course of a teaching career spanning nearly 25 years, Alfonso developed a passion for parent-teacher relationships. This passion began during a few years of her career when she taught in a private school. In that small community, she seamlessly maintained strong relationships with the parents of each of her students.
"I knew those families," Alfonso said. "They went to my church, I was also a teacher in the church, so I've always had this very close connection with my parents."
For Alfonso, the relationship between teacher and parent can be the key to unlocking the potential of students. Many people believe, Alfonso said, that students would be more successful, if only their parents could develop their pre-literacy skills, read to them at home, and expose them to different ideas. Many parents are often unable to help their students in this way without proper support.
"I am a strong believer that if I connect with the parents on a very personal level that I can get more support from them, and therefore more support for their students," Alfonso said. "It's just a domino effect."
When Alfonso moved to Dalton six years ago, she taught second grade at Westwood School. At the time, Westwood required every teacher to do two home visits per year, which furthered her desire to connect personally with her students' parents.
Alfonso's passion for connecting with parents was hindered by one thing: Parents can be skeptical of teachers asking to come into their homes. When initially approached by a teacher, most parents wonder if their student is in trouble or if they are facing scrutiny as parents.
"When I did home visits at Westwood, I remember one parent saying, 'Is she in trouble? Why are you here?'" Alfonso said, "They have so many fears, I just realized, home visits alone are not going to work."
One night, as Alfonso was preparing to go to sleep, she suddenly thought of a solution to her problem.
"I couldn't sleep," Alfonso said. "I suddenly knew how I was going to do this, and I got super excited."
Alfonso's idea was to create gift baskets to deliver to each student's home. She would coordinate each visit with the parents in order to completely surprise the student.
"It's all about the student," Alfonso said. "Then, it gives me a foot in the door, and I can share how their child is doing in my class and just form that bond."
After staying up all night brainstorming and searching Amazon for affordable gift baskets, Alfonso came into work the next day eager to begin this project. She knew this wasn't something she would be able to accomplish alone, so she began reaching out to teachers, administrators, counselors, staff and anyone else who was willing to help.
"In my career the one thing I have learned is that nobody stands alone," Alfonso said. "Even though these are my students, there are other teachers that serve these students. I realize not everybody has the passion, or desire, to be in other peoples' homes, or they just don't feel comfortable and that's okay. There are other ways that they can help."
Alfonso reached out to the other teachers who also taught her students, informing them that they could each sponsor a gift basket for only $7 each. Teachers created and signed cards for each child. The school's social workers contributed non-perishable items, the cafeteria donated snack packs, and the school's principal, Lauri Johnson, purchased Dalton Middle School t-shirts for every single student.
Some teachers and administrators, including Johnson, even participated in some of these home visits with Alfonso.
"I had the opportunity to join her on a visit and saw firsthand how it deepened her connection to her students," Johnson said. "It provides an opportunity for personal connection to students that is not always possible to accomplish within the confines of the school."
For Alfonso, who has sacrificed several weekends and evenings to complete these home visits, it's impossible to understate the impact this has had on her students.
There was one student in particular who Alfonso knew was going through some difficulties at home. She began to notice his increasing apathy in class, so she decided to go ahead and schedule his home visit.
"When I walked into this child's house, he couldn't believe it," Alfonso said. "We got the chance to have a very deep conversation with the family and I'm finding out about [the difficutlies he was facing] through the home visit."
According to Alfonso, when this student arrived in class the next day, his entire demeanor was changed.
"He came in here, he was engaged," Alfonso said. "We did a group project, and he was engaged, he was talking, he was contributing. This was the kid I know, and I lost him. But that home visit brought him back."
Not only is Alfonso able to create deeper relationships with her families, but she's also able to gain more context about the environment her students go home to every day. Parent-teacher conferences, while valuable, don't always provide the same information that Alfonso has been able to learn from a few minutes in a home visit.
"I could've done a million parent-teacher conferences, and not gained what I gained in a five- to ten-minute visit in their home," Alfonso said. "They would've never been able to give me that information. That has been the biggest blessing for me."
Now that Alfonso has finished visiting all of her students, she's already thinking of ways to simplify the process for next year.
"You may think I'm crazy," Alfonso said. "I'm already thinking of how to do it again next year!"
Alfonso said she is incredibly thankful to the support of the school's staff, teachers, administration and her own family. Her husband and sister have accompanied her when no teacher is available to go, and her daughter sponsored a few of the gift baskets financially. Every week, she sends out emails with the pictures of the smiling kids and their gift baskets to show everyone the "smiles they've been responsible for."
"We're expecting them to perform, we're expecting them to produce, and to behave a certain way, to keep it all together all the time from class-to-class, without realizing the reality that they live in every day," Alfonso said, "Something that started out as a fun and exciting thing to do for the kids has really blessed me, more than anything, as their teacher."
Below: A slideshow of some of the 47 students Yanira has visited this year with their gift baskets.