While the concept of shadowing students is not new, what principals do with the information gathered can drive the entire school community to make many positive changes. To find out more about this successful program, we convened a group of experts, including Neil Gupta, director of secondary education for Worthington City Schools in Ohio, and a member of the Ohio Association of Secondary School Administrators (OASSA) and NASSP; Jason Markey, principal at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, IL, and a member of the Illinois Principals Association and NASSP; and Devon Young, program manager, K12 Lab Network at the Stanford University d.school in California and project lead for the Shadow a Student Challenge. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion in November.

Levin-Epstein: When did the movement of shadowing students begin? Is it more prevalent in the last five to 10 years?

Gupta: The companies or organizations that worked on the Shadow a Student Challenge are going into their third year in February. It’s part of their larger platform of design thinking and involves engendering empathy and getting a better understanding of what’s happening in the schools before we as leaders can make changes in it. It’s definitely increased over time, I think, through social media and through the presence of other administrators who have shared their stories about the impact that it’s had on them. It’s had an almost “grassroots effort” movement of others who have decided to do this in all states.

Markey: I would certainly echo what Neil said … about really building up the program through the experience of the student. At our school, actually, it’s been a practice for a long time. I came in 2003 as a new teacher, and it was the standing practice—and still is—that every new teacher in our school shadows a student for a day. They pick a day in the first semester and one of their students and experience that, so that’s something that’s been a long thing in practice. When I became an administrator here, going on eight years ago, I continued that practice, and then the last few years I’ve encouraged—and at times required—all of my administrative staff to do the same. So, all of our administrators have shadowed students on multiple occasions, and I do it every year as well.

Young: The Shadow a Student Challenge is in no way a new concept—educators have been shadowing students for decades. When we were designing this experience, we gained inspiration from Grant Wiggins’ excellent piece “A veteran teacher turned coach shadows two students for two days-a sobering lesson learned” (https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/10/10) on a high school teacher shadowing for the first time and realizing what a meaningful learning experience this is for educators. I think this program resonated with people because educators are really hungry for new, innovative ways to deal with complex problems at their school. Shadowing gives educators a fresh perspective, and the resources and tools created with the challenge helps them learn to problem solve in a new way.

Levin-Epstein: What’s the relationship of the Shadow a Student program to shadowing students in general?

Gupta: Shadow a Student is not its own company. There was a lot of collaboration that happened with School Retool—it was a primary partner in this—working with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, IDEO [an international design and consulting firm], and Stanford’s d.school [design school]. The companies that got together really had this conversation about, “What does design thinking look like in schools?” When you look at a design-thinking process, there’s a lot of steps that are involved in it. Specifically, one of them being about drawing upon empathy and really understanding the end users. So, they pulled apart and made this an integral piece in what happens. But it’s not a stand-alone, ideally. I’m not saying that some principals only do this one thing and that’s it, but the intent is to springboard and use that as a platform to really first understand what it’s like to be in school and what our schools look like, and then use the other parts of the design-thinking model to start enacting changes that happen, that help students and families.

Markey: I think that was an excellent synopsis, Neil.

Young: The Shadow a Student Challenge was born out of another program we run at the Stanford d.school called School Retool, which is a fellowship that helps school leaders redesign school culture using small, scrappy experiments called “hacks.” There is a component of this fellowship where each School Retool fellow is required to complete a shadow day at their school site and, without fail, this is one of the most compelling and meaningful parts of the fellowship experience. When we decided to launch this challenge, we wanted to focus on the shadowing component as a key learning opportunity for educators and introduce the notion of hacking to drive change at their schools. We are so lucky to be able to do this work in collaboration with IDEO and with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and have built a huge community of educators across the world—like Neil and Jason—who are passionate about looking at school through a student-centered lens.

Clear-Cut Benefits

Levin-Epstein: What are some of the other benefits of this kind of program?

Markey: Empathy obviously reaches a lot of different possibilities, because once you understand someone’s experience a little bit better, you can start to design an educational experience, as Neil’s referring to, to really embrace that understanding. [We can] be intentional about the learning environment that we design and what goes into that and how it speaks to those experiences. It’s a really powerful tool.

But beyond that, we talk to our teachers that do it about seeing six or seven different teachers than they normally see. So, they actually can learn about the practices of other teachers. Then, just the logistics of realizing what the rest of the school day looks like for our kids. There’s a realization there that it is not all that easy for your students to report in a high school to seven different teachers a day and think about all these different things, plus after-school activities. But it really, truly does inform their understanding of, holistically, what a school day looks like for a student. [Shadowers start asking:] “How can my individual teaching practices impact that for a child?” “How can I make sure that’s part of my thought process when I develop what my expectations are for my class?” “What are the supports I’m putting in place for my students?”

Gupta: Where Jason’s staff has taken it to is this notion of, “We learn best practices when we learn with each other and from each other.” I think for me, in my role at the district office level, it’s easy for me to feel as though I have a pulse of what’s happening when I’m at the district level, and I hear things or I see training happen with our teachers in our training rooms for professional development. We’re in classrooms all the time, walking around, doing evaluations or stopping in classrooms to see kids and see what’s happening. But … sometimes there’s a heightened alert, an awareness when you’re in a room for five minutes. Things seem to go well.

When you’re in there immersed for a full day, and you’re actually in that classroom, you start to really look beyond what you initially see when you’re only in there for five minutes, and you really get a sense of what’s happening. “Is our professional development effective? Am I really seeing the fingerprint of it in the classroom setting, or are there things that we need to do differently?” It helps to inform us of how things need to change. One of the things we keep hearing is, “I’m in classrooms all the time; I don’t need to do this challenge.” I think the alternate, or the way to talk through that, is that when you are in there deeply, you see a lot more.

Selecting Students

Levin-Epstein: How do you choose the students you’re going to shadow?

Gupta: We actually collectively talked about students, different demographics of kids. We wanted to see a snapshot. I wanted to see a student that was kind of “on the bubble,” who seems to have leadership potential but isn’t necessarily identified in a box of “gifted” or “special ed” or anything. I wanted to see what does that school look like for him or her? We’ve got in our high school partnerships with colleges, [we wanted to see] how [students] maneuver going to high school classes on a high school campus, then getting into a car in the middle of the day, going to The Ohio State University, for example, and taking some college classes. Park the car, walk around campus, get to class, and then get back to the high school at the end of the day for sports. We had a student in a wheelchair and wanted to see what school was like for somebody like that.

Another principal went to a student who went half-day in a traditional high school and then a half-day at our career center. We have an alternative academy; we wanted to see what that looks like and feels like. So, we picked these different demographics, and we didn’t say that we all had to do that, but I think we [principals and administrators] all just kind of decided we wanted to divide and conquer a little bit to see what that might look like among people groups. Then, after the Shadow Challenge was over, we all got back together again. The power of getting back together and actually talking through, “What did you see, and how did you feel throughout the day?” helped us really start to make patterns out of the things that we saw. Some things were isolated in our feedback and takeaways, and some of them were pretty consistent regardless of group and location. So, that helped us to start thinking about changes.

Markey: I think there are a lot of similarities as far as Neil talked about regarding their administrative team that I’ve tried to do personally for my own practice. So, over the seven years (going on eight now) that I’ve done this, I’ve tried each year to make sure that I’m picking a student that has a different profile than the previous year, right? So, I’ve followed a student that was pretty much exclusively part of our ELL programming; I’ve followed students that are pretty much straight in AP classes; I’ve followed freshmen students; and then, actually, because I was having that one-day experience so much, two years ago, I decided not to follow an individual student but rather to follow a unit of study. So, instead of spending one day as a student in all classes, I instead decided to take one unit in one class over the whole scope of the unit. One period a day I would go to this class for three, four, maybe sometimes five times a week, but over a four-week period, and I completed a whole unit.

So, sometimes with what we’re kind of trying to explore and look at we want to make sure someone sees the school from that perspective. We’ve been looking at the experience for our students in the English-language learner program. We really want to try to understand that as well as possible, so we’ve had a couple of different administrators take that perspective. Sometimes there’s a specific focus, but overall, we’re just trying to be as representative of our student experience as we can. Again, sometimes that means stretching it the other way and looking more long-term at a class over the arc of a unit, like I did.

Young: Before educators select a student to shadow, we ask them to set a learning goal for their Shadow Day. If you’re not working in classrooms or with students every day, setting this learning goal can help dictate what student you should shadow. For example, last year we had a district administrator who had a learning goal to improve the first- generation high school student experience at their school and worked with the principal and counselor to identify the student they shadowed.

Formal Agreements?

Levin-Epstein: Some principals have asserted that there should be a formal agreement between the student and the shadower before the process begins. How do you feel about that?

Markey: It certainly should be a level of reciprocity there. I’ve always talked to the student about it beforehand and had a conversation around the purpose of it and why we’re doing it. “This is why I chose you. These are the things I’m looking to get out of the experience …” but then absolutely letting their parents know as well. I think it’s very important to have that upfront disclosure.

Gupta: That was difficult for me. I talked with the parent. I don’t think it actually says that you necessarily have to, but it went a long way for me to talk to the student and ask him first, and then say, “I’m going to call your family.” It’s funny, because the parents would say, “Why’d you choose my child? What’d he do wrong?” They think they are being targeted. You explain it, and then they understand it. Then again, by happenstance, I decided to email the teachers and let them know. I’m glad I did later, because in our roles we have to be sensitive to us coming into their classroom and making it feel as though it’s something we’re not trying to evaluate them on, and we’re not looking to “catch” them. That was difficult for me, to put that aside, take that hat off as administrator, or even educator, and put the hat on of “I’m a student.” What’s it look like to be a student of this school? I remember going up, for example, to ask for a hall pass to go to the restroom, and the teacher said, “You don’t have to ask; just go.” And I said, “No, I’m going to ask, because I want to be respectful,” and playing that role.

Young: I don’t know if there needs to be a formal agreement, but I think it’s really important to make it clear to the student what you’re doing and why you’re doing this. If you think about it, this is a huge ask for students, right? Having a conversation with them where you explain that you’re taking their point of view and experience and using it to understand and improve their school. Last year, some shadowers had a debrief session with the student they shadowed—what a great way to show how much you value student voice as an educator! We created some templates and tools to help shadowers communicate what they’re doing to their school community, but I think it’s very important to have a connection with the student you’ll be shadowing.

Levin-Epstein: Has this program improved operations in your school?

Markey: Yes, in a couple of ways. We’ve used anecdotal information we’ve collected from our shadowing experiences to help us redefine our school day and scheduling. We are looking at everything from how long the lunch period should be to what should the length of an individual class period be. Do we need flexible time? Do we need some time to do other things outside of just structured curricular-based learning? That’s one way that it has definitely influenced our conversation.

Another way, probably most directly, has been in our learning spaces and how we design learning spaces. The information that we’ve gathered in shadowing has really helped convince our teachers, by both their own experience and us sharing our experience administratively, that the design of the learning spaces and the furniture that we put in our classrooms can really change for the better the learning environment in their classes. We’ve gotten people to really open their eyes to some different styles of furniture, different ways to get students to collaborate and think differently about the classroom experience.

Gupta: The Shadow Challenge helped us to think about different methods and different things we thought that maybe the teachers needed, but yet they needed something different. When you’ve got 10 administrators that have been doing a full-day shadow experience and they walk away and we say, “OK, now out of that, what did you [all] see after being in about 70 classrooms for an entire class period? What type of informational text and cognitive rigor was introduced?” We could then go back and look at our professional development work around that.

Another positive was [we had a renewed appreciation for] our teachers. When we went back and they asked how it was, I said, “I’ll tell you. I was tired, my back hurt; it was tough being a kid again.” I remember again how hard it is to be a teacher and have that many kids coming through all day long, and the amount of technology has increased since when I was a teacher. Having those conversations … commiserating in how much workload has increased since I was a teacher—the other teachers really picked up on that, and they were very appreciative that the superintendent, that the chief academic officer, took a day out of their work to go do that. It meant a lot for them, and that had a huge positive impact, I think, in the mutual relationship among us as a staff.

Levin-Epstein: You’re in an elevator with a principal who doesn’t have a shadowing program. What would be your pitch to him or her?

Gupta: Out of all the professional development experiences that I’ve been to—national conferences, state conferences, workshops—by far, the Shadow a Student Challenge has been the best one day of professional development I’ve had. It’s had the most lasting impact for me as an educator to best understand what’s going on in my school, how to best help and address those issues happening. It’s not a program; it’s one day, and obviously you can take that day anytime you want to do it, decide the child that you want to do it with. But for them to just take that leap and for them to make that decision to do that, there’s no best time to do it. We as administrators are always busy. If they need to have another administrator come in and cover their building while they do this—any way that they can … do it—they should look at this opportunity.

Markey: I always refer to one of the leading authors in design thinking, Tom Kelley, and he had a thought in one of his books that said that every organization needs an anthropologist, someone who can look at any situation with fresh eyes. You need to bring that perspective to every conversation you have and not always bring in all the biases that we have. I think this has been one of the purest ways to guarantee that you’re pushing yourself to have that perspective. I would challenge people that, if they really want to lead with students in mind first, that they need to find ways—and this is one of those avenues—to continue to build empathy for all of the different students in their school and in their district. I think it’s a powerful practice that can only benefit their school.

Young: Neil and Jason summed this up perfectly. The one thing I would add is that building this into your school’s practice is a great way to deepen and re-energize connections among colleagues, re-energize people around a common cause, and create a community of people who collaborate, work together, and lead with the student at the center of everything they do. Also, this costs $0 to participate—think of it as a free professional development opportunity where everyone on staff can participate!