School & District Management

What This Principal Learned—and Changed—After His Day as a ‘Student’

By Denisa R. Superville — January 14, 2020 5 min read
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Frankie Pollock laced up his sneakers, zipped up his gray hoodie, and strapped on his backpack. It was his “first” day of school at Creekside High School in suburban Atlanta.

What is it like, the principal wanted to know, to be a freshman in the 1,700-student high school? Did he really understand the student experience? Were his assumptions about the school he leads right? What would he learn?

For one day last fall, Pollock shed his principal’s clothes and duties to follow the routine of a typical 9th grader at Creekside. Shadowing students—or in Pollock’s version, becoming a student for the day—has become a popular strategy for principals and assistant principals who want to deepen their empathy for students and challenge their own assumptions about what school is like for young people.

Here’s what Pollock learned and what he’s changing.

Students are welcoming: When he came into the cafeteria for lunch, students invited him to sit at their table. They were open to starting conversations with someone they didn’t know. But he also observed how a new student, arriving when the school year was already underway and bonds and relationships had already been formed, could feel lost. There weren’t any greeters at the door specifically to meet new students and he wasn’t paired with another student to guide him around. Even with his familiarity with the school, Pollock found himself following the crowd.

What he’s changing: Pollock’s leadership team is including students in decision making more than they have in the past, like asking them what they’d like as reward for meeting specific academic targets and how to revise the school’s dress code policy, he said. Pollock noticed that Hispanic students didn’t seem as connected to the wider school community as other students. To make those students feel more included, he set up a forum for them to talk about their concerns with school leaders.

For the most part, teachers care and know their stuff: Pollock was 14 the last time he took algebra. Now in his 40s, Pollock found himself sitting in algebra class, struggling. He said he needed help understanding what was happening.

“I found that I was really learning, and I came in as a blank slate,” he said. “I really felt welcomed, and I felt accomplished at the end of those classes. I really was like, ‘If I could, I’d really like to come back to these classes as a student, just to pick up on where I left off the day before.”

Some teachers don’t make the best use of the 90-minute block schedule: When Creekside switched to a 90-minute block schedule, teachers received professional development on how to break up the lessons—with time for warm-up, reviews, and student activities—to make the classes more engaging for students and manageable for teachers. But not all teachers had mastered that. He described one class as “one long 90-minute period of sit-and-get.”

What he’s changing: The school is revising its training for teachers to ensure they improve how they are dividing their lessons, using their time wisely and keeping students engaged. (The 90-minute block schedule can’t be changed during the school year.)

90 minutes can feel really long for teachers and students: Even in a class where he was engaged in the lesson, Pollock looked at his watch and realized that he’d only been there for 60 minutes. “There was another 30 to go and I [thought], ‘I’ve reached my limit. ... I want to go to the bathroom. I want to do something,” he said. “I understand why you see students, who take a break, get a pass, and walk the hallways. As administrators, we’re in the hallways telling them to go back to class. Even sitting there, I [thought] ‘wow, this is a lot.’ ”

And that’s a concern for several reasons, including for students who may have had a light breakfast or no breakfast at all and may be hungry and having a hard time concentrating, he said.

The lunch schedule doesn’t work for all students: The school has four lunch periods. The first starts at 11:48 a.m. and the last at 1:30 p.m. A student in the last lunch period can go through most of the school day hungry if they’ve had little or nothing to eat for breakfast. Principals and other school administrators who attend a district meeting or event would never have to wait until 1:30 p.m. to have lunch, he said.

“That would be unheard of,” Pollock said. “However, because of how we schedule our building, that’s considered the norm for some of our students.”

That realization helped him understand why some students had asked about selling snacks during the school day. The administration had said no.

What he’s changing: Pollock plans to work with some of the school’s partners to get donations to set up a concession for healthy snacks while students move between classes. “That way we know that we are at least alleviating the problem of student hunger or [students] losing focus because of the fact that their stomachs are growling,” Pollock said.

A missed opportunity to build relationships: In one class, Pollock found he had no computer to use so the teacher sent him to the counselor to find out whether there was a mistake in his schedule. But the teacher didn’t give Pollock a pass, and when he got to the counselor’s office, the counselor sent him back to the teacher to get a pass. He got the pass, but with no date or time marked on it, Pollock used that opportunity—as some students might—to walk around the building. That interaction, he said, was a missed opportunity for the teacher to work with the new student and establish a relationship. “This is their first day of school, their first experience with you as a person, and, ultimately, they are going to feel unwanted,” Pollock said.

“Instead of saying, ‘hey, we’ll work this out, just have a seat, we’ll figure it out,” he said, the teacher asked the “new” student to leave. That impression may never go away, he said.

Publicizing safe spaces and building human connections are essential: Pollock got lost in his own building on his way to class. Imagine that. He found himself in the classroom of a teacher who was not on his schedule. But instead of allowing the ‘new student’ to wander the halls, the teacher allowed him to stay. It was concerning that students might not be in their scheduled classes, he said. But that episode also showed that there were safe spaces in the school that students can turn to during the day when they are lost, overwhelmed, or need a human connection. The school wasn’t doing a good enough job of publicizing those safe spaces, he said.

Here is what another school leader learned from her day shadowing students.

Photo courtesy Frankie Pollock, principal of Creekside High School, Fulton County Schools, Ga.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.