Elizabeth MacWilliams remembers the night twelve years ago that forever changed her as a teacher.
She held an open house for her students and their parents – and no one came.
“The kids were so excited to get things ready for their parents cleaning their desks, leaving handwritten notes,” MacWilliams, now 34 and a middle school principal, tells PEOPLE.
“I was so excited as a teacher and everything was perfect and not even one family came,” she says. “I honestly think I cried. Back then I didn’t have a family and my, job and these students were my whole life.”
Mostly, though, she hurt for the kids.
“It was really difficult the next day – the kids felt like it was their fault,” she says.
So she decided to go to them, visiting each one of her students’ homes to “make sure their parents realize how much I love their kids.”
She says at first people were surprised, not sure what to think when she showed up on their doorstep. But gradually word spread that the visits were casual and fun and the families began to welcome her into their homes.
“I think so many families have had experiences in school that have led them to feel jaded,” she says, “and I just had to let the kids and their parents know they are valuable and loved.”
Now the principal at Carroll Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina where half the kids are part of the free and reduced lunch program, MacWilliams continues those home visits. It is weekends and evenings that are tough on a busy mom and school leader, but she is planning to get to all 1003 students homes before the end of this school year. She’s already done more than half.
“It’s definitely eye-opening,” she says. “We have all these academic expectations – it’s so standardized today – we forget about where kids are coming from and it’s just great to have the opportunity to see them in their home environment. It gives you perspective.”
Sixth grader Holt Swecker was shocked when his principal, now 34 and the married mother of a six-year-old boy, came by just before Christmas and sat on his living room sofa, even staying to listen for a bit as he practiced on the piano.
“It was kind of weird at first but then I got more comfortable,” he remembers.
“It tells me that she cares a lot about every individual student. It makes me feel more comfortable and more like I’m not just someone at school with everyone else, it feels like I’m more of an individual.”
Holt’s mom, Mary Jane Swecker, was equally shocked.
“I was really impressed,” she says. “It was like five in the afternoon when most people are going home and she was coming to our house instead to sit down and meet with Holt. I’ve never known anyone who is this passionate to make sure every student has a chance at success.”
MacWilliams, who is one of eight kids, says she can’t actually take credit for coming up with the idea for the outreach.
“My mom was a teacher and always did home visits during the summer,” she says. “She would go to the kids houses and she would bring us with her.”
Even the students seem grateful. Some, like Kyla Ritchie, have even sent her a thank you note.
“You are the best principal in the world,” the 12-year-old sixth grader wrote.
MacWilliams does acknowledge, though, that the visits seem to have transformed the overall feel of the school and the way her students engage with her and their teachers.
“It’s fantastic, it’s cool to be able to walk down the hall and know children on that deeper level,” she says. “It’s making eye contact, a smile, an exchange that lets them know I care about you, I’m here for you and I’m going to do what I can to make your school experience better. I just think they benefit from knowing that I care.”
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