School and district leaders can be several degrees removed from students’ experiences, even if they spend all day together in a building. And that means they might be missing important insight into how students experience school and what could be holding them back.
Surveying students is one popular way of getting feedback, but there is another powerful and less resource-heavy tool for teachers, teacher coaches, principals, and district leaders to get a students’-eye-view of school: shadowing students.
Shadowing a student means not just following them around all day, but doing everything the student does: schoolwork, tests, physical education, eating school meals in the lunchroom, and even waiting at the bus stop with them.
“We want to know what time they are getting up,” said Limary Gutierrez, the associate superintendent of educational services for the Soledad Unified School District in California. She was speaking on a panel as part of Education Week’s regular “Seat at the Table” webinar series.
“Walk in a day of the life of a student,” she said. “What data can we gather? What are we assuming? There might be other needs aside from their instruction” that need to be addressed.
Education researcher and best-selling author of Visible Learning, John Hattie, said he frequently shadows students in his work.
“Students see incredible variability in class to class,” he said. “How do we see their learning through their eyes, and how do we teach them to become the teachers? That’s the fundamental premise of that work.”
Education Week followed an assistant principal who shadowed a student for a day in 2016. EdWeek asked Karen Ritter, then an assistant principal at East Leyden High outside of Chicago, to grade several aspects of her school before and after the shadowing exercise.
The grades she gave her school for how actively students were learning, how engaged they were, and how well teachers drew connections from student work to the outside world all dropped after she shadowed a student. The grades she gave her school for school climate and expectations remained the same.
Reflecting on her experience at the time, Ritter said: “I think I will do some more shadowing experiences, with an ELL student, with a special ed student, and with an AP-level student. The point is to know what the students are thinking and wanting, and to start with them.”