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Elementary Teacher Goes Out Of Her Way For Her Students — By Visiting Them At Home

Bill Zeeble
Sarai (left) shows off her house, room and favorite doll to 2nd grade teacher Esther Martinez. Sarai's had the doll since she was just months old.

Schools face a constant challenge — how to get families more engaged in what’s happening in the class. In North Texas, some schools are experimenting with teachers making home visits. In Irving, one teacher’s been doing just that for years.  

“Estába yo allí,” Esther Martinez says laughing, as she makes her way to an apartment in a modest, single-story complex. School may be over,  but Esther Martinez isn’t finished. The second grade teacher is visiting one of her students — Sarai — at the family’s apartment in South Irving.

“Martha! And this is Sarai,” Martinez says to the 7-year-old as she reaches their apartment. Sarai’s mother, Martha Arellano, welcomes the teacher.

In the small apartment, Martinez pulls out a book and sits down with the mother and daughter on the sofa. Dad is out. He’s taking a citizenship class.

“Esta niña,” Martinez says to Sarai. “Do you want to tell her about your reading or do you want me to tell her?” “

"You tell her," Sarai says.

“Do you want to tell her what level you’re on?” Martinez asks.

Mom, who has limited English, says, “You can tell me in English, if you want.”

A few minutes later, the student’s showing her teacher her favorite doll.

“I’ve had her since I was little.” Sarai says.

“Really?” Martinez asks. “Where does she come from?”

Eyes wide open, Sarai says “My cousin gave her to me at Christmas.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Teacher Martinez, Sarai, and mom Martha Arellano talking shop on the sofa. Martinez says home visits are the most important things she does.

Sarai’s elated. So is Martinez.

“This is her favorite part,” Martinez says about Sarai showing off her little house to the teacher.

This home visit is about school work. It’s also about building relationships, developing trust. Martinez has been making these home visits for 14 of her 17 years teaching, and says they’re the most important thing she does as a teacher. At Sarai’s house, Martinez is like the favorite aunt. A smiling Arellano offers her guest a snack of chips and guacamole.  

“Some chips and some beans? Ah! Martha! You know I didn’t have a snack after school today,” Martinez says.

This visit goes well. Martinez is happy. She has 22 students this year, and she’ll visit them all, at home, twice.

“They are honored to have you in their home,” Martinez explains. “They are flattered that you take the time. They know that I’m invested in their kid. I have them pretty much eating out of the palm of my hand. And feeding me, too.” Martinez says laughing.

The principal at John Good Elementary, Jill Tokumoto, encourages every teacher to make home visits.  She knows few of them will. It takes extra time and effort and teachers are already busy.

“I think there’s a huge payoff,” Tokumoto says. “And it’s just the bond that they have. People are hesitant in the beginning because they feel like there needs to be that line of school and home…until they start the home visits and realize how important it is.  Kids love it. Parents love it.”

Martinez loves it too because she sees the result in class.

“You know, when you’re doing the right thing, when they’re really getting it and you see the light bulbs go off over their head. They’re enthusiastic about learning,” Martinez says. “You know you’re doing the right thing when they want to perform for you and they tell you, 'it’s OK teacher, I know this is hard, but I can do hard things.' You know you hooked them. That’s good.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
It's not quite party time, but almost, whenever Martinez visits homes of her students. This year - every year - she visits each student's home twice.

Martinez has believed for years that home visits help her kids act and perform better in school. It’s also gotten the parents more involved in their kid’s education. And now she has proof. A recent Johns Hopkins University study shows kids with teacher home-visits were more likely to read at or above grade level. There’s more.

“They’ve seen attendance increase. They‘ve seen student behavior disciplines decrease.”

Stacey Hodge is with Stand for Children, a nonprofit student advocacy group in Dallas. 

“What I’ve seen,” Hodge says, “And what I’ve watched happen, just like the second grade teacher who visits all of her kids, families feel more empowered. They feel like they become partners. The walls of the schools come down.”

Hodge says those are all good things that may last a lifetime, especially for students in Esther Martinez’s class.

“My prediction is those kids and those families will always remember their second grade teacher.”

And their teacher — who literally goes out of her way for these kids — embraces her students like they’re her own. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.