No one expects an accident or illness to keep a student out of school, but when it happens, students meet Emily Howell. She’s the Grand Rapids Public Schools teacher who helps homebound and hospitalized students.
Howell is an unassuming type. And although she’d never say it, technically she’s a “know-it-all” since her job requires her to teach students in every grade. One minute she might be instructing a high school student on calculus, and her next lesson might be helping a grade schooler learn the color blue.
How does she know everything she needs to know?
“You get the same questions year after year,” says Howell, who has held her position for three years. “They seem to struggle with the same things. You get a stumper from time to time. It keeps me on my toes. There’s never a same day twice.”
Count Howell as one of the many teachers statewide who make sure seriously ill or hospitalized students don’t fall behind in their studies. Theirs is a mostly invisible service — unless you’re a student who needs it.
The state of Michigan requires local or intermediate school districts to provide “appropriate instructional services” to students, when a physician certifies they must be hospitalized or confined to home for more than five school days. Districts may either provide teachers themselves or contract with a hospital, treatment center or other district.
Howell, of Grand Rapids Public Schools, is the only full-time teacher for homebound students in the Kent ISD. Smaller districts have fewer students who need them, and their methods vary as to how to assign teachers. At Thornapple Kellogg Community Schools, for example, officials draw from their teaching staff or post their need on EduStaff, an online site that finds substitutes for school districts.
Taking Class on the Road
Even though she has an office, Howell’s rarely there. She’s only at the district’s Educational Services Building one or two hours a week. Her work keeps her on the road, traveling from one student’s home to another, with a car trunk packed with boxes of resources for different subjects and grades.
Howell works with about 12 students at a time, scheduling two 45-minute sessions a week with each, the minimum required by state law. (Special education students must receive at least two one-hour sessions.)
Coordinating 24 appointments gets complicated. If a student has to cancel, it can throw Howell’s whole schedule off. As she tries to reschedule other appointments to fit in the cancellation elsewhere, texting is her friend.
“It’s important to be flexible – and have a good memory,” she says. “Every student wants a specific time. You have to put together a schedule that will work for all the students and their preferences.”
From broken bones or being a new mom to brain trauma and anxiety disorders, the reasons vary why Howell and other subs are needed.
Setting up homebound teaching starts with a doctor’s statement that notifies the school how long the student will need to be home. Schools have to have a plan in place within 72 hours. Howell works with teachers to find out what classwork students need to do.
Howell says she didn’t realize her job even existed when she graduated from Aquinas College in 2009. “There are so many ways to use your degree,” she says.
Besides being extremely organized, Howell says anyone doing her type of work needs to be compassionate and understanding. And while being out of school for an extended time isn’t something students or parents would want, good things do come from it.
“You’re building very strong relationships with students and families, and teachers get to know the student,” Howell says. “It helps a student go back to school more easily. Families feel a lot more comfortable going to teachers.”
TCB at the Hospital
Sarah Smith agrees. She is the hospital teacher and school liaison at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“It’s so rewarding to be able to take something off the plate of these families so they can keep the focus on the medical end,” says Smith, who taught high school English for 14 years before starting her work at the hospital in 2011.
Districts can make their own rules and require more teaching time than required by thestate, Smith says. Sometimes teachers will drop by on their own time to help a student.
She would like to see Michigan increase the amount of time homebound students must receive tutoring. Michigan is on the low end of number of hours required, she says, noting some states require five to 10 hours a week.
“These kids are missing 45-50 hours of school a week,” Smith says. “I feel 45 minutes twice a week barely scratches the surface for them.”
Howell often finds herself at one of the two large hospitals serving children, DeVos and Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. She gets help at DeVos from Smith, who works with students at their bedside or in the hospital classroom.
Monday through Friday mornings at DeVos, young patients who can leave their beds meet as a group at the Club TCB (Taking Care of Business) classroom to work on an activity related to a daily video.
Smith puts together different lessons for students depending on their grade. Younger students may learn about colors and scissors, while older ones may do a math problem on how much it costs to go skiing. Those who can’t leave their beds are given a packet with a lesson in it, also related to the video.
“It’s always nice to get out of their room,” Smith says. “It’s a nice distraction.”
From September through December of last year, the hospital had 195 children participate in Club TCB in the classroom and 585 from their rooms.
“I often think they feel better to be doing some schooling,” Smith says. “I think it helps bring some normalcy to their situation.”
While there’s not much “normalcy” in Howell’s packed days, of all the teaching positions she’s had, this one’s her favorite.
“Now I wouldn’t do anything else,” she says.