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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1 COMMENT

  1. As teachers, rarely do we have the opportunity to have gratifying experiences that truly humble us and reshape how we view our teaching. Being able to shadow a student for a day has truly allowed me to reflect on the teacher I am and the transformative teacher I hope to be for my students. Growing up in the same environment as my students always gave me the confidence to say, I knew what was best for my students. This idea may I add, has been one of the biggest mistakes I could have ever made as a teacher. Thinking that because I shared similar experiences as my students, I was in the best shape to make decisions for them without necessarily considering the current emotional and societal demands they are facing. As a teacher, I have always been extremely strict, and at times I have been hard on my students. Tough-love has always been my motto. It took a lot of grit for me to make it to college and beyond that to graduate from college. Therefore, I knew that if I wanted to prepare my students to be college and career ready I had to teach them one way or the other to show grit. While this is a value that they truly need in order to succeed in life, especially to overcome the challenges they’re faced with on a daily basis, I am embarrassed to say I have gone about it the wrong way for over six-years. Yet, it is never too late to make the changes our students so much need and deserve to be who they truly need to be.

    Below, I will describe the single experience that has changed the way I look at the students I teach, and farther the way I look at the role of an educator in this current and challenging time for our country.

    I decided to shadow a former student who is currently in the third grade. I have known this student in and outside the classroom setting, and I can say that her joy and love for life and learning is indeed infectious. When I first began to shadow the student, I noticed no zest which was the complete opposite of what I had expected. The student arrived around 8 a.m to school. Once she got to school, she headed to get her breakfast and then joined her class table. The expectation as students were eating breakfast was that they needed to be at a level 0 –meaning students could not speak until all students were done with their breakfast. While there was calming piano music in the background, the Dean of Culture stopped in various times to remind students of the breakfast expectations in the cafeteria. Recurrently, he stated that students had to be at a level 0 while eating breakfast. The student seemed to be all too familiar with this routine, and she sat in her assigned spot and ate her breakfast. After all students were done, the teacher came around to gather and pick up any left-over trash left by students. The students lined up quietly as the teacher instructed them to walk to class. This is when I began to notice the students’ anxiousness about heading to class. I no longer saw the joyous face that entered my classroom daily. The student seemed unhappy and when I asked her she expressed that she didn’t like her class or teacher. From the minute, she entered the classroom the student was expected to be silent. Even through this, I was impressed by the students’ engagement as she listened and followed every instruction that was given to her without questioning much the reasoning. The pace of the lessons and the day was a different type of pace for me personally and I could feel my energy level going down and I was having a hard time concentrating and focusing. Through the day, the student was exposed to various learning strategies that was truthfully overwhelming and at times, chaotic. As the student, I was falling behind miserably and not understanding the work I was expected to complete. To my surprise, I continued to work through the tasks assigned because I noticed every other student was doing the same thing and not a single hand was raised for questions or clarifications. On the teacher’s part there were little comprehension checks and at no point was there any clarification on what exactly I was expected to do.
    The expectation was simply to work independently because we were in “third grade” now and to work at a level 0. After having to sit for reading for over an hour at a level 0- I seriously wanted to get up and leave. Then, I realized that being a student of color at a low performing school in one of the poorest areas in Miami meant a lot of sitting, a lot of rules to follow and a lot of thinking and expectations to meet which was simply exhausting to say the least.
    The only time I was truly allowed to interact with other students was during lunch and at recess. At recess, many of students had to sit out because they failed to complete or turn in their homework. As the day continued, I was constantly on edge worried that I was not doing what I was expected to do or meeting the teachers’ expectations. The teacher had so many negative rules that I honestly could not keep track of all. I even had to hold my urine because I did not know how to show the sign to use the restroom. Only after asking the student I was shadowing to show me the sign was I acknowledged and allowed to use the restroom. However, I could not use the restroom during instruction time, or guided practice. The only times where I could go to the restroom without losing any points was during independent practice. But let’s be honest here with the teacher instructing and speaking for majority of the time it was difficult to find the appropriate time for me to use the restroom and I truly felt uncomfortable and uneasy reflecting on the times I have expected my students to wait until I was done speaking or teaching to use the restroom.

    After this experience, I feel a deeper level of understanding for my students and I can honestly say that being a student was not fun at all. It really gave me the opportunity to face some of the challenges most students feel daily and let’s not speak about the clear disconnect between teachers and students. I feel like my teacher did not know me or care to get to know me and I also felt like I did not know much about my teacher. Through each lesson, she was focused on the pacing for each lesson and getting every bit of content in rather than sharing any pieces of information about herself.

    This experience led to insights that pushed me to reflect about my current role as a teacher and my future role as a principal. A key take-away that I want to take as I prepare to be a future leader is to encourage and foster curiosity in hopes of building strong student-teacher relationships. Students are curious and more than wanting to learn about any content they want to know about their teachers-they really do! Moreover, they want to know that their teachers genuinely care about them as people and as individuals.
    As a principal, I want to fuel positive changes by building open conversations with my students to capture their experiences and to gather feedback through the year so as to improve the schools’ opportunities in supporting students. Another key take away from this experience was that as teachers and administrators we seriously need to consider the pacing of our lessons/day and the engagement and rigor of our learning environments. To give every student an opportunity to succeed, we must consider how we can make changes to the flow of our lessons, and we must actively plan to build in more check for understanding rather than simply moving along with a curriculum with the mindset of teaching a lesson and simply moving on…assuming the students’ understanding will finally click and they’ll “get it” eventually. This leaves little to no room for the students to feel confident and reach a level of mastery where they feel like they can achieve what is expected.
    As educators, we must get to know our students, and who they are as individuals. Only when we take this into account will we be able to truly achieve the changes we want to see. #Shadowastudent

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