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Pastelitos, Home Visits, and the Whole Child

by Jeremy Ault, Rocketship Southside Community Prep, Integrated Education Specialist (ISE)

All teachers at Rocketship make home visits. We care about our families and understand that parents are the most powerful advocates for children. Making a home visit is a small gesture of gratitude that allows us to manifest our thanks and respect, and foster trust between teachers and parents.

But they can also mean so much more.  

August 2018: Home Visit

Tracing my finger along Windlake Road, I made note of the turns, tabulated the mileage, and committed the map’s image to my memory. I had done this many times before. After eight years of biking around Milwaukee, I was confident in my sense of direction. So when I jumped on my bike, with less than 15 minutes before my scheduled arrival for my first home visit with a Rocketeer named Antonio, I was confident I’d be there on time. But a funny thing happened when I crossed Mitchell Avenue and turned left to head north past St. Michael’s Basilica on Milwaukee’s Southside: I lost my bearings. I quickly made a left-hand turn and pedaled another mile.  I anticipated an upcoming intersection, and when it didn’t materialize, I realized I was lost. I called Ivelise. “Hey, Ivelise. I apologize, but where is your house again?” I asked. “OK! See you soon.”

I backtracked, but I didn’t feel confident.  I was disoriented in a bewildering maze of bungalow houses, concrete streets, and alleys. I called two more times. I was now late by 30 minutes. Stressed, I made an ill-advised turn, hit a crack in the road, and fell over. I was ready to cancel the visit. “Hey Ivelise, I am completely lost. Can you wait just a little while longer? I am so sorry.” Half expecting an angry response, I was shocked when Ivelise quickly said, “Yes! Of course. We will be here.” I continued on. I spotted her 15 minutes later sitting on the porch watching Antonio ride his bike on the sidewalk. I was now a full 45 minutes late. Embarrassed, I slunk up her steps and apologized. She smiled, gave me a hug, and then handed me a pastelito, a Puerto Rican style empanada, and water. I was so grateful for the food. In that moment, her house became my refuge. She saw me in a vulnerable state and offered sustenance and comfort.  

October 2018: IEP Meeting

Two months later Ivelise and I were sitting in my classroom going over Antonio’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), a personalized plan that the school develops for students with special needs. Right away, I knew something seemed different with Ivelise. Her shoulders were slumped, and she looked dejected. Taking a cue from her demeanor, I faced her and reassured her that her son Antonio was gregarious, loveable, and hard-working. “Not only does he work hard, but he has a sense of humor,” I continued, “He is empathetic and caring; you’re raising a wonderful young man.”

IEP meetings can be bewildering experiences for parents, teachers, and students alike. They are full of educational jargon and acronyms. There are specialists–Speech and Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, Psychologists, Physical Therapists, and others–each speaking a language composed of acronyms and code words unique to their field. As the educational specialist, I too have my own “teacher talk.”

Just as it is difficult to estimate the worth of a grown adult by merely looking at their profession or salary, the same is true for a child. Occasionally, educators (myself included) are guilty of deconstructing students into what I like to think of as “educational atoms.” Instead of reflecting on a child’s character growth or their passion for Cenozoic-era reptiles, we talk about their percentage growth in ELA (oops, another acronym – that’s English Language Arts). Unfortunately, IEP meetings are venues where this type of deconstruction into “academic atoms” can easily take place.

I could see that this was happening that day in October. Ivelise knew her son struggled with comprehension and reading, but she also saw him holistically, as an individual. And her more nuanced, complex understanding of her son’s character was coming into direct conflict with the numbers and acronyms of the “atomized student” being portrayed during the IEP meeting. We were all guilty. Especially me.

Antionio working on his writing in class

But the tone of the meeting changed drastically when Ivelise talked about Antonio. She spoke about her dreams for Antonio and where she sees his growth both academically and emotionally. The love for her son was infectious and the dignity with which she handled herself during what had to be an emotionally challenging IEP meeting made me reflect on my role as an educator and has made me a more empathetic teacher.

After the meeting, I thought back to that summer day when I was bewildered and lost searching for Ivelise’s home. And much like that afternoon in August, I was lost again in October. This time, however, there were no roads or wrong turns to be made. Instead, I lost the complete image of her son when his IEP meeting began to focus too much on numbers and not enough on Antonio, the child. But unlike that time in August, Ivelise offered me more than a pastelito and a lesson on grace and patience. Like a master of a pointillist painting, she made me step back to see the full canvas. Each minute dot (or atom) was merely one small part of a larger portrait. And she showed me that my relationship with her son is more than just a one-way street of progress reports and IEP meetings. It’s instead a dynamic relationship where I am often the student, being guided and supported by the most impactful teacher of all: the parent.

Jeremy Ault is the K4-1st grade Integrated Education Specialist (ISE) at Rocketship Southside Community Prep in Milwaukee, WI. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife Jamie and two daughters Ada and Madeline. He holds a Masters Degree in Global History from Marquette University and a Masters Degree in Urban Special Education from Cardinal Stritch University. In his spare time, he enjoys music, hiking, and traveling.

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Published on April 8, 2019

Read more stories about: Teacher Experience.