Oakland Teacher Brings Class, Comfort to Sick Students in Homes & Hospitals

By Debora Gordon

What happens when a school age child is unable to attend school because of a health condition? Through California’s Home & Hospital programs, where teachers visit students who will be out for a month or longer, including those who may never be able to attend. The teacher goes to the student’s home or bedside in the hospital, and instruction takes place there.

 In Oakland, a small cadre of teachers deliver instruction to kids in grades K-12. Jill Warner has spent most of her 25 teaching years in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Home & Hospital program. “Seeing a student one-on-one,” she said,”is really having the gift of getting to know them. You can be very nurturing. There is also that sweetness of getting to know the family.”

Because she grows so close to them, she is able to provide much more than academics. “If you have a student of limited means, you can go beyond the classroom. I give them supplies because it’s on such a small level, the ability to really create a little bit of a universe for the student.”

Home & Hospital teachers see about eight or nine students, three times per week each for about an hour, often at their homes, but sometimes at the hospital.  There is a tremendous undercurrent of sadness as students may be missing school due to a wide range of conditions including dialysis, surgery, and severe asthma. Some kids do not recover fully.

In more recent years, students are also being diagnosed with mental and emotional health conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, that make regular school attendance extremely challenging. 

Home & Hospital teachers will also see gunshot victims, such as Chris Rodriguez, the 10-year old boy who was hid by a stray bullet while taking piano lessons on Piedmont Avenue in 2008.

 Jill teaches history, English and the arts to middle and high school students. Sometimes she will have a student for just a couple of months while they recover from surgery or an acute but short-term condition. But other students may continue for years.

Jill sees most of her students at their homes. If  they are at Children’s Hospital, then she goes to the student’s bedside. If there is a student whose immune system is very compromised, then Jill might put on a paper gown, wear gloves, or a surgical mask. If she has a cold or another communicable disease, then she does not see highly susceptible students until she’s recovered.

Some of Jill’s students have terminal conditions, which affects her deeply. “I get incredibly emotional, and there is often all sorts of other things going on in the family. You’re in their house. You get very involved with these kids. I had a student who was getting dialysis six days a week, and there were four other sons. I couldn’t help but try to do all sorts of things. I bought groceries, helped with their other kids.”

Jill often finds herself offering comfort to the family. “The mothers cry, and I cry. A lot of students are dealing not only with being ill, they feel like they’re being punished. And the parents often feel so guilty, feeling ‘how come I, as a mother, couldn’t have prevented this?’”

Jill wants students to understand that Home Instruction is not meant to be a vacation or an easy way out. These grades count. So they must learn self-discipline and also be good advocates for themselves, seeking assistance if they do not understand an assignment.

 As a teacher, social worker, friend of the family and the bringer of aid and comfort, Jill offers more than academic instruction to kids missing out on so much else in life.

Author Profile

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”

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