In the mid and late 1990’s, a couple colleagues and I were helping organize parents to improve schools in South Sacramento. As we met with parents and formed parent organizing committees, we encountered a real disconnect between the schools and their families. In these schools in which most teachers were white and most families were of color, some teachers viewed the parents of their students as uncaring or even dysfunctional. Parents often experienced the school to be unresponsive and intimidating, and some were told that they were to blame for the low achievement of their children.
In each school, we came across a few teachers who did home visits. These teachers were different. They had a different view of families in the neighborhood and felt supported by their parents. Parents adored them. These teachers and parents worked together as team to foster a sense of belonging in the school and to improve student achievement.
We became determined to spread what those teachers were doing throughout the school. Working with parent leaders and teachers, we developed a training approach and secured a small amount of funding from the district. In a few years, this model began to spread across the country, mostly by word of mouth and through the support of teacher unions. Teams of teachers and parent leaders traveled to other states to provide training. Today, 20 years later, the organization we created, Parent Teacher Home Visits, supports home visit efforts in 20 states.
During the formation of the strategy, two concepts in systems change work helped guide us: positive deviance and appreciative inquiry. These concepts represent an alternative to the usual top down approaches by helping groups create change from the inside out.
Positive deviance is a process first utilized in efforts to improve child nutrition in Vietnam during the 1990’s. Child health workers found that while most children in a very poor region suffered from malnourishment, there were some children who were healthy and well nourished. The workers set out to discover why and found that these families fed their children a little differently. They included sweet potato greens, shrimp and crabs in their children’s diet and fed them three times a day rather than twice. These families were positively deviant from the norm. Rather than bring in a solution from outside “experts” and rely on outside funding, the workers and volunteers from the villages worked to spread the practice to other families through peer to peer influence, moms teaching other moms. In a short period, the percentage of well nourished children grew to 85 percent.
We took a similar tack in our work with schools in the early years of organizing. We looked for examples of strong, vibrant parent teacher relationships that were outside the norm and then we found ways for these teachers and parents to train other teachers in the home visit approach. We found the solution right there in the same “dysfunctional” schools; we just had to look and listen.
In appreciative inquiry, changemakers begin where people experience positive energy and feel empowered. This starting point is different than the usual deficit-based approach that focuses on a problem and then seeks to address the problem, often making the problem bigger and even more overwhelming. Our brains suffer from a negativity bias and go quickly to binary “us vs. them” thinking, and to blame. In the politics that swirl around school reform, blame is a constant. In appreciative inquiry, we start with questions that surface what is life-giving and what inspires people. These questions reroute the brain, away from deficit to strength, and from negative energy toward the positive. In this model, people come together, driven by shared hopes and dreams, to create change based in their own experiences.
In teacher home visits, teachers visit families not because there is a problem but because they want to build a relationship with the family and want to get to know the student better. They bring a powerful question to the visit: “What are your hopes and dreams for your student?” This question unleashes an enormous amount of positive energy. Parents often say that no one has ever asked them that question. Teachers and parents work together to make those hopes and dreams a reality. Teachers rediscover why they went into teaching in the first place. They walk away from those visits feeling like the community heroes that they are.
As I look back on the twenty-year history of Parent Teacher Home Visits, I find the experience reaffirms the value of working from the inside out and of placing a fundamental trust in the ability of local communities to develop solutions. Change that comes from a sort of neocolonial, top-down approach or that is driven by blame game politics rarely sticks; it disappears after a few years and leaves little behind. When change grows organically and spreads, as with teacher home visits, it’s a sign that the strategy is grounded in the experience, values and vision of the people the strategy is meant to serve. A strengths-based strategy rekindles hope and belief in ourselves and in one another, and in doing so, it activates leadership at a grassroots level.