LaWanda Riddick provides science instruction — and a listening ear — to junior high and high school students in Brooklyn who qualify for home instruction for medical reasons.
How does home instruction work?
I believe home instruction is the most unique program within the city Department of Education. It's a magical place with magical people. It allows students who are home for medical reasons for a minimum of four weeks to continue to receive personalized, one-on-one instruction that's tailored to meet their needs. They might have a temporary medical situation like a broken ankle, a long-term illness or a psychological condition that prevents them from being in a school building. I have between three and five junior high and high school students on my caseload at a time, all living within a few blocks of each other in Brooklyn. I teach them science and other teachers come at other times to teach the other core subjects. Because home instruction is most often a temporary service, we collaborate and coordinate with students' schools to support them.
How do you plan instruction for students at home?
The first time we meet with a student, we assess them using different tools. Then they get the same things they would get inside a school: homework, tests. There's that social-emotional piece that's missing when students are away from school so we not only teach them, we socialize with them. We use programs like Skype and Zoom to allow students to connect with other students who are also at home. I've taken students to science fairs. Some of our students have never stepped foot inside a school building.
What do you bring with you to a student's home?
If you ever want to see something amazing, look in a home instruction teacher's car trunk. It's like a mini school building, full of equipment: pencil sharpeners, hole punchers, printers, laminators, microscopes. Some students may need a lot of remedial work, so I'm bringing manipulatives. Some may be visual, so I'm bringing PowerPoints. Some are tactile, so I bring in microscopes and test tubes. For my high school students, I teach to the Regents science exam, so I'm bringing in lab equipment, whatever that kid needs to pass. And if I don't have a particular supply, I guarantee there's a teacher in my district who has it, so I may meet up with that teacher to get it.
What is it like teaching in a student's home?
You're a stranger coming into an unknown environment. I need to be able to understand how to respect their culture — do I need to take my shoes off, do I need to cover my head? The first thing you have to do is build trust and rapport with the parents and get them to understand that you're there for the best interests of the child. And you're not just dealing with the parent — there can be siblings, grandparents, nurses, home health aides, even the dog! Sometimes you become so entrenched in the family that they want you to become part of the family.
What challenges have you faced?
Sometimes you're walking into a home expecting to dive in and teach, and the kid won't come out of their room. We're communicating with each other through a closed door, and I have to build a relationship to ease them out of their room. You can't call the dean or send him to the school counselor; you have to be able to adapt in that moment because you're everything all at once. Every teacher is like a Swiss Army knife; we have tools we use to get the job done.
Are there any particular students who stand out to you?
I have a degree in mental health counseling. With one 12th-grade student, the level of resistance he would give me was sometimes unbearable. At the end of our time together, he said, "I'm thinking about becoming a counselor. If I could listen to someone the way you listen to me, I could make a lot of difference in the world." I realized he had been challenging me to see if I would stick it out with him. All of my students bring me joy because they allow me to grow in my empathy, compassion and sympathy for the nature of being human.