Whatever It Takes? Maybe Not.

by Guest Blogger
December 7th, 2010

by Diana Senechal

In November, a principal in Chester, New York, walked into the home of two students who had not shown up for school. He was accompanied by a school psychologist; the two boys, who live with their mother, were alone at home. The father filed a criminal complaint against him; later in the month, the school board voted to suspend him with pay.

Responding to Joanne Jacobs’ post on the incident, Robert Pondiscio observes astutely:

“In Steve Farr’s Teaching as Leadership, he cites with approval the example of teachers who, rather than get frustrated at their inability to reach the parents of students who are having difficulty in school, walk those students home and wait as long as it takes for mom and dad to come home from work. From one perspective this kind of unannounced “home visit” is an example of the “whatever it takes” school of “no excuses” teaching. From another, it’s trespassing.”

I would take Robert’s point one step further. When a teacher (or principal) crosses over into the role of social worker, babysitter, or anything outside of teaching, he or she runs the risk of emotional trespass. Both teacher and student may become confused over their roles. Students may come to expect something unrealistic of the teacher, or vice versa. It is normal for a teacher to comfort or advise a student; this need not lead to any misunderstandings or problems. But entering the students’ personal lives is treacherous, and teachers should guard against it unless there is an established protocol.

There are several reasons for caution. First, when a teacher steps out of role, one never knows how a student perceives this. In the student’s eyes, the teacher may now be a friend or a family member. If the teacher has to let the student down, it can be devastating for both. Or if the gesture is unwanted, there may be trouble. I had a teacher long ago who became chummy with her students, giving them gifts and talking to them about their lives and hers. At one point she realized she had gone too far, and she pulled away. This was hard on the students who had come to depend on her. Another teacher kept trying to get me to talk to her about my feelings; I resented this, as I preferred to choose whether or not to confide in someone. Whether welcome or unwelcome, a teacher’s intrusion in a student’s life can have serious consequences.

Second, a teacher whose responsibilities extend in all directions may not have much time to do anything well. Teachers who make home visits may not know when to stop. The seemingly urgent matters may take priority over the quieter planning. There are genuine emergencies that call for intervention, but it is not good, overall, for a teacher to be rushing to the rescue all the time, or even much of the time. Students may gather that the more crises they bring, the more attention they will get. They can manipulate even without meaning to do so, even with the best of intentions, as can the teacher.

Third, students actually need the teacher to set limits. They need to learn that a teacher can be formal and still care about them. Many live in environments where people demonstrate loyalty and affection through excess and grandiosity: lavish spending, reckless relationships–even fights. Students learn from their surroundings and popular culture that if you “really care” about someone, you will “go all out” for him or her.

A steady, caring, restrained teacher (who doesn’t go overboard and doesn’t pull away) can do them immense and lasting good. The teacher who can hold back a little is likely to stay in the profession longer. This does not mean working less; it means allowing oneself not to be a savior and to give students something valuable nonetheless. That takes a certain kind of humility, which is not lost on the students.

Fourth, teachers are the ones who can point students to something outside of themselves—be it music, literature, mathematics, history, or another subject. These subjects can ultimately help students make sense of their lives. To erode this even slightly, to sacrifice it for the immediate needs of the students, may be to deprive them of the things that can help them over the years. I think of how much I was helped by French, Latin, Greek, literature, math, music, and other subjects. Yes, teachers listened to me when I was going through difficult times, and I am deeply grateful to them for that. But I am also grateful to the ones who kept pointing me to something beyond me. I have forgotten much of the advice teachers gave me, but I remember the poems, essays, novels, and other works they brought to my attention.

There are no absolute rules, of course. Much of this depends on the school’s policies and culture. Some schools may have clear procedures for home visits, homework help, and so forth. In such cases, the roles are clearly understood and protected, or at least they should be. Even so, if a school expects teachers and principals to undertake such work, it should be mindful of the dangers and complications. Schools should recognize the pitfalls of doing “whatever it takes”—as “whatever it takes” may not be the most responsible, the most instructive, or even the most caring action.

Diana Senechal, a former (and possibly future) New York City public school teacher, is writing a book on the loss of solitude in schools and culture.



  1. [...] Whatever It Takes? Maybe Not. « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by Whatever It Takes? Maybe Not. « The Core Knowledge Blog « Parents 4 democratic Schools — December 7, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  2. Thank you. I refuse to feel guilty that I don’t visit my students’ homes in order to gather homework or get the family involved, no matter what guilt trips are laid on me. I’m NOT a family member as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t see that my normal duties as a teacher extend beyond the school and what community events I participate in. (Emergency situations would be different, of course.)

    My school used to round up all the teachers one evening before the start of school, pack them onto buses, and drop them off in neighborhoods where students lived. (It’s a small community.) The teachers were dropped off and expected to case…er, canvas…the neighborhood by knocking on doors and talking to families. Thankfully, they have eradicated this practice. Teachers never liked it and rebelled when they found out many students and parents hid from them or made plans to be gone that night. The reason? It’s also a very poor community. Some of those folks were actually living in the garages behind the houses they gave as their address. Many were embarrassed, many didn’t want to get caught.

    Comment by redkudu — December 7, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

  3. The “whatever it takes” crowd is conveniently vague about defining how far teachers should go to ensure student success. This is due, in part, to the fact that the nation has yet to decide exactly what it wants from schoolteachers. To what extent, if any, should teaching involve social work? They’re both noble professions, but you can’t expect both from the same person.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — December 7, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

  4. Thank you for giving voice to what I’ve been feeling. Schools are victims of “mission creep”, and we seem to have become a culture in which it is taboo to say “no” to more work –especially when It’s For the Kids.

    Comment by Ben F — December 7, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

  5. Although I heartily agree with the issues stated about teachers’ roles and boundaries, it seems to me that a principal and a psychologist doing a home-visit is within the realm of responsibility, in some cases. If a student ends of injured or worse from events at home, the first question is oftern, “Didn’t anyone at school observe and report theses conditions?” I applaud this principal and psychologist, and think it is sometimes desirable and necessary to do what they chose to do.

    Comment by LynDee — December 8, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ashley Burleson and EdOptions, Alltop Education. Alltop Education said: Whatever It Takes? Maybe Not. http://bit.ly/h9pamE [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Whatever It Takes? Maybe Not. « The Core Knowledge Blog, The Core Knowledge Blog -- Topsy.com — December 8, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

  7. Thanks to everyone for the comments so far. LynDee, schools are required to report signs of abuse and neglect–but does this mean they should investigate the matter outside of school? That could easily get murky.

    In this case, it doesn’t seem there was any indication of abuse. The two students hadn’t come to school–that was it. It is unclear whether this was a recurring problem.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — December 9, 2010 @ 10:11 am

  8. All the teachers at my school, which is a Title I school, have to watch a series of professional development videos about teaching students who live in poverty. And a significant part of the series tells us how we have to be family for these kids because 1) the kids of no adult support in their lives, and 2) the kids are at the social development level where they will only work if they have a personal relationship with the teacher.

    An additional problem we public school employees face is that we’re the ones who are blamed when students fail. The principal in NY went to the home of some truant students. If students don’t show up on FTE count days, it’s the school that suffers, not the students. At Title I schools, we (the school, not the students) get penalized if too many students are absent on the day of the state standardized test.

    Comment by Bruce — December 15, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

  9. [...] Diana Senechal, a NYC Public School Teacher, on the Proper Role of K-12 Educators: “A steady, caring, restrained teacher (who doesn’t go overboard and doesn’t pull away) can do them immense and lasting good. The teacher who can hold back a little is likely to stay in the profession longer. This does not mean working less; it means allowing oneself not to be a savior and to give students something valuable nonetheless. That takes a certain kind of humility, which is not lost on the students.” (Core Knowledge Blog) [...]

    Pingback by Quick Hits for 12.7.2010 — August 24, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

  10. [...] already grueling) to teach electives, run evening and weekend events, call parents every day, and even go to students’ homes. In addition, they are supposed to participate in meeting after meeting: department meetings, [...]

    Pingback by Why Do Teachers Stay? « Diana Senechal — August 25, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  11. [...] the school day, when there’s no time to lose. And quite frankly, if teachers aren’t prepared to give every one of their evenings and weekends to these essential tasks, then they shouldn’t be teaching. There are a million other outlets for [...]

    Pingback by To Save Kids, District Adopts No-Sitdown Policy « Diana Senechal — October 13, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

  12. [...] matter what the pressure to do “whatever it takes,” teachers need a counterweight: a time and place that does not and will not belong to school. It [...]

    Pingback by Calling an end to the day — Joanne Jacobs — March 22, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

  13. [...] to the “community,” or intervene in their home lives. (Some schools encourage teachers to do “whatever it takes”—including home visits—to bring up student achievement; this is misguided.) Students, for [...]

    Pingback by The Grace of Classroom Roles | Diana Senechal — July 18, 2013 @ 8:32 am

  14. […] of school, you must insist on it, and the school must respect and support it. In an era of “whatever it takes,” this is not a […]

    Pingback by On teacher scandals and boundaries — Joanne Jacobs — October 5, 2014 @ 11:36 am

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