Student Well-Being

For a Day, School Leaders Urged to Immerse Themselves in a Student’s Life

By Evie Blad — February 16, 2016 3 min read

A group of education organizations is challenging school leaders around the country to spend one day shadowing individual students so they can develop greater empathy for their charges’ experiences.

Participants in the Shadow a Student Challenge sign up to follow one child for a full day during the week of Feb. 29 to March 4, eating lunch with them, attending classes, and maybe even riding the bus with them. Those taking part will connect on social media to share what they learn, and will get resources from the organizers—School Retool, a fellowship that encourages school leaders to promote deeper learning and solve problems in their buildings; IDEO, a consultant group; and the d.school at Stanford University, which encourages innovation in schools.

Susie Wise, the K-12 lab network director for Stanford’s d.school, talked about the vision of Shadow a Student with Staff Writer Evie Blad. The exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is empathy something school leaders should include in their improvement strategies?

Susie Wise, the K-12 lab network director at Stanford University’s d.school, is an organizer of the upcoming Shadow a Student challenge.

WISE: To a person, [principals who have shadowed students] all had realizations, really different ones that were very profound to them. It felt like it was a kind of interesting gateway for them in terms of shifting their mindset about their role as a leader.

What is the difference between following one student and the day-to-day life of being in and out of classrooms?

WISE: You’re intending to really shift your position to not be the leader who is directing traffic and working on 47 things at once.

One of the things you get to see is the space in between, for instance. You see transitions and you see posture. Some of the leaders who’ve done it have been surprised with how passive the student’s day is, how much sitting there is, how many transitions there are that don’t make much sense. You don’t see that when you’re looking at a master schedule and you’re in your leader mode.

It’s very important work to make sure all of the pieces fit together, but then you have to also sit in it and see ‘how does this work for the student?’

You want school leaders to find “hacks” to solve problems they may identify while shadowing. What’s a hack?

WISE: [We work] with people who are in situations that feel constrained, and that’s why we’ve landed on hacks. A hack is a small, scrappy experiment that gets you moving. So the opposite of a hack is saying, “We need to get a bond and raise $10 million and build a new building and then have a new bell schedule.”

A hack is, “Gosh, I have heard about advisory,” which is where you really ensure that every student has a deep relationship with adults in your school. And, to roll that out schoolwide, that takes a lot of orchestration. ... Try it. Get two teachers to try a collaborative project with two classes. Do an advisory with six kids for one week and then find out from the kids and from the teachers: What does that feel like? What shifted? Could this be an important way for us to work? And then keep going. We call it a quick win. A hack helps you get to a quick win or a quick loss, and that’s really important too.

How should leaders pick which student to shadow?

WISE: The most important thing is to be really intentional about it. Who are the groups of students in your school that you know the least about? What’s most important is what might you see and how will that connect with the questions you have about your school. ... Whether you are a struggling student or a star student or someone in between, the experience of being noticed and having someone with authority show that they care is actually really powerful and validating.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Principals Urged To ‘Shadow’ Students

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