By Devon Young

“Leading efforts to reimagine what high school can be, in the inner city, often feels like trying to move a mountain. There may be progress, but it is extremely difficult to see it on a daily basis. Shadowing … allows me to see how far we’ve come as a school, and at the same time, to see how far we still have to go to become the school our students deserve.”

This reflection by high school principal Eric Juli gets to the core of why shadowing is important for adults working in education. It offers educators a visceral opportunity to experience school as students do and ask the question: What do our students deserve as their school experience?

School leaders and teachers are better suited to answer this question when they deeply understand the student experience. One way to achieve this level of insight is through shadowing a student.

The Shadow a Student Challenge launched last year with the goal of engaging 1,000 school leaders across 50 states in shadowing a student for an entire day, from bus stop to bus stop, to truly understand the student experience at their school sites. This Challenge was born out of School Retool, a professional development fellowship that helps school leaders redesign school culture using small, scrappy experiments called “hacks.” Hacks may start small, but they’re built on research-based practices that lead to Deeper Learning, and can create the kind of big change educators aspire to—namely, preparing your students for life in the real world. Shadowing a student is one “hack” towards understanding the student experience.

In 2016 over 1500 school leaders and educators across the world participated in this empathy deep-dive, and we were blown away by the stories they shared. At first, we didn’t know what to expect: Would they truly take off their “teacher/administrator hat” and immerse themselves in the student experience? As more and more educators and school leaders took the Shadow a Student Challenge, reflections started pouring in:

“I was sitting for 8 hours a day – I am EXHAUSTED,” “my student was on the Free and Reduced Price Lunch program, so I ate what he ate. I had to sneak to the staff room and get a snack in the afternoon – I was starving”. “It was so hard for me to remain immobile, I asked for a bathroom pass and walked around the hallways instead.”

These get to the core of the student experience at school: What does it really feel like to be a student in today’s world?

The Shadow a Student Challenge is not a revolutionary idea – teachers and school leaders have been shadowing their students for years. This Challenge builds on this deep empathy practice and provides permission, agency, tools and resources to help understand not just how to shadow, but how to turn their insights into actions. Most importantly, the Challenge connects an international network of like-minded educators around a common purpose: empathizing with their students.

Last year Jofee Tremain, an elementary school principal in Texas, participated in the Shadow a Student Challenge. She has always felt connected to her students, but through her Shadow experience had a realization about her role as a principal:

“Overall, I should be more accessible. I’m there, but my presence needs to be more felt. How do you actually see your… students the way that they present themselves every day in a vulnerable way?” Following her Shadow Day, she decided to try a hack to address her need to be more accessible: she unwalled her office.

Jofee grabbed her computer, phone, and a notebook and set up a makeshift desk outside, complete with suggestion box for students, parents and staff to share ideas for improving the school. After one day of this hack, she found that she had her pulse on what was really going on at her school, and has turned this hack into a regular practice to ensure she’s connecting with her students and school community regularly.

Jofee was already an engaged school leader who had her students’ best interests at the core of her work, but this Challenge helped spark that hack mindset in her. She saw an opportunity at her school, and found herself answering this question: if there is something you want to change at your school site, what is something you can do tomorrow to make progress towards this goal?

We invite you to join us on this journey again this year. We are kicking off our new Shadow a Student Challenge on Groundhog Day, February 2nd, and would love to engage with even more educators and school leaders around the country to lead with empathy to drive change in schools.

So will you join us in making 2017 the year of empathy? Sign up today to Shadow, spread the word to your network, and follow in-the-moment reflections through Twitter and Instagram through #shadowastudent. See you at the bus stop!

Devon Young is the Community Lead at the K12 Lab Network in the Stanford University d.school. Follow her work at @k12lab.

This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more about this series and to learn ways that you can contribute, click the icon below to go to the Project-Based World page.

Join in the conversation at #projectbased.

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