If you think you’re tired after a day of teaching, you should try being a 4th grader. I recently spent a day shadowing a 4th grade student at the school where I teach. I went home with a migraine, a backache, and a hangover of fear and humiliation.
I have been teaching elementary school for five years, but this was the first time that I have actually put myself in the shoes of those I serve each day. It was a required assignment for a school leadership program I’m completing at Teachers College, Columbia University.
The experience was so profound and disturbing, however, that it actually has caused me to rethink my future role in education. I’ve seen just how much teacher stress trickles down to the student experience, and I am now considering ways that I can help improve teachers’ emotional health and well-being.
The morning of my student shadowing day, I entered school with high hopes. I had my backpack ready, my lunch packed, and a big smile on my face, ready to greet my 4th grade buddy. As soon as he entered the room, we both hung up our backpacks and unpacked our notebooks. We glanced at the white board: It said, “Sit silently and complete page 44.”
We sat side by side at our two desks, my 4th grade buddy leaning over his notebook with his feet swinging happily back and forth, and me, squeezed into a tiny chair, my knees pressed against the bottom of my child-sized desk. I borrowed a math book from the shelf and began working alongside my 4th grade friend.
Yelling and Anxiety
Suddenly the teacher’s booming voice interrupted my thoughts. “NO TALKING!” The words made my heart jump into my throat. I looked around. Students who had finished the assignment were standing at their desks, quietly talking with neighbors. Now they exchanged anxious glances and turned their eyes down to their finished work. This set the precedent for the rest of the day.
After the math assignment, our teacher asked us to open our science books. We spent 20 minutes or so learning about energy and fossil fuels. This was the highlight of the day for me: a calm 20 minutes where we felt like a group of 4th graders should feel—joyful, excited, and eager to learn.
After the lesson, the teacher told us to pack up and line up at the door to change classes. We all got up and stretched for a moment before grabbing our backpacks. Kids began to smile and talk to one another as they packed their things.
Suddenly, I heard a whistle shriek. The line immediately fell silent. “This is unacceptable!” yelled the teacher. “Line up silently! You just never learn!”
After this, there was only somber silence in the line. We shuffled into the classroom next door, avoiding eye contact with the teachers policing the line.
Afraid of Getting in Trouble
This seems a good point to pause and reflect on the experience of the first half of my day. As a pretend student, it was incredibly difficult to keep myself in class; I was desperate to take a walk down the hallway or escape to the bathroom. I was bored, anxious, and, to be honest, afraid that I was going to get in trouble. I’d witnessed a very clear power dynamic: The teacher was the boss, and we, the students, were somehow always wrong.
Lunch brought some relief. I finally got to talk with my 4th grade buddy and some of the other kids sitting at my lunch table. They wanted to know what kind of food I liked, and whether I had any pets. Each question sparked more conversation.
But the cafeteria echoes. Really echoes. Our cafeteria is in a dark, crowded room with very low ceilings. As we talked, I could hear myself using a louder and louder voice so I could be heard over the noise. The other 60 kids were doing the same thing. The noise level rose and rose as lunch went on, but no one was yelling or doing anything wrong.
As I took my last bite of lunch, though, the same loud whistle from our morning class blew. The room went silent. The yelling began again. We were “awful,” we “don’t learn,” and worst of all, we were “animals.” The lunchroom monitor dismissed us one table at a time, each a little later for recess. It took so long to dismiss everyone that the last table enjoyed only three minutes of recess before they were called to go back to class, where we did a lot more sitting, listening, and getting yelled at.
My day as a 4th grader has had a huge impact on me professionally. First and foremost, it made me highly sensitive to how adults in school speak to children. How can we ask children to speak respectfully to us when all day long we speak to them disrespectfully?
I wondered what creates this kind of environment. Were these just bad teachers? Bad people? I knew these teachers personally. They were my colleagues. I had witnessed the passion they showed over the summer as we all prepared our classrooms and planned for the year ahead. I know that they love kids and chose this profession to make a difference.
Rethinking My Next Steps
I came to believe that what I saw through a student’s eyes can be traced to a lack of administrative support for the stress these teachers are experiencing. They weren’t yelling because they hate children or because they enjoy taking power from 9-year-olds. They are overwhelmed, overworked, and likely don’t know where to turn for support. They have 28 students in a room, a third of whom have individualized education plans or 504 plans that require even more attention and skill. These teachers are drowning without a lifeline.
As I move through my school leadership program, I’m holding close the memory of my day as a 4th grader. It was a turning point for me. It made we wonder whether I should be a principal. I’d dreamed that as a school leader, I could create an environment where teachers feel supported and safe reaching out for help when they need it.
I need to know that I can work in schools in a way that makes a difference for students—and teachers. I want to be a part of that work. But I’ve been wondering whether I should do it not by leading a school, but by offering emotional support for teachers.
Since my shadow day, I’ve started leading wellness workshops for teachers where we discuss emotional wellness and mindfulness, and how they can be better supported in schools. Mindfulness and self-awareness training have been a big part of my principal-preparation program, and I believe these techniques could help teachers.
I’m not sure yet what my role in schools will be, but whether I’m leading mindfulness workshops or leading a school, I hope I can be part of the work to transform schools into more positive spaces that support joy and resiliency for both students and teachers.