In the ongoing effort to find ways to improve school culture, the best approach is to find out what school is like from the perspective of its primary stakeholders—the students. But asking students directly about their experiences within the school can have mixed results, especially if they filter their responses when speaking to a principal or other authority figure. No matter how open and candid a principal may be with others in the school, getting a true perspective of students’ day-to-day experiences requires understanding and delicacy.

As a former high school principal, I wanted an authentic process that allowed me to dig into the culture of daily life in my school—the good, the bad, and the unintended ugly. I knew if I were to pursue such a view of my school, I would need to check my biases—and my ego—at the door. At the suggestion of Joe DiMartino, the founder and president of the Center for Secondary School Redesign, Inc., I decided to explore student shadowing.

Understanding School Culture

Student shadowing—understanding the nuances of school culture and its impact on students by walking in their footsteps—can lay the foundation for what needs to be addressed in your school. DiMartino portrays student shadowing as the essential place to begin when redesigning a school. He notes that shadowing unveils the authentic student experience and informs eventual decision making about what needs to be changed to make a school more effective for students. My own experience, which resulted from my practice as a principal and subsequent experiences as a school improvement coach, affirms DiMartino’s observations: Student shadowing reveals not only what you anticipate you will learn, but provides some unintended findings as well.

Because school leadership is a transparent process, a principal must be open to all the findings that might be discovered—whether positive or negative. Student shadowing is not for the thin-skinned. But for education advocates who believe that part of their role is mustering the resources and the emotional safety for teachers to give every student the best they have to offer, shadowing might be a worthwhile option—provided preparations are made if the school falls short of expectations.

The Setup to Shadowing

Becoming an advocate for students through shadowing begins with putting yourself in their shoes. As such, you will not read or reply to your own emails. You will not take phone calls, and you will not have lunch at your desk. You and other members of your school leadership community will literally follow students for one full school day.

Gather a group of school leaders to get started. These individuals should be teachers, other administrators (building-based and/or district-based), or a school board member. The shadowing experience is organic and requires no rubric, but when a principal undertakes the shadowing process, there is a goal in mind—whether to improve current practices or to seek the underpinnings of why larger redesign might be needed. Determine whether a specific redesign question requires greater understanding before shadowing starts. For example, how does the schedule accommodate a structure of small student cohorts? How do specific student groups experience learning? These and other questions can be incorporated upfront at the orientation meeting. Have each participant commit to a full day of shadowing; this is the only way to authentically extract the student experience. At the conclusion of the shadowing day, hold a group debriefing session while the experience is fresh.

It is good practice to assign a small group—perhaps a counselor, an administrator, and a teacher or two—to select which students to shadow in order to generate the deepest insights from the experience. Students who are chosen should represent the different populations in the school—ensuring a solid cross-section of all students, such as college-ready, career and technical education, special education, and IB students. Students need to be dispersed among the curricular areas, such as core studies and electives; they should also represent the cultures, ethnicities, and genders of the overall student population, and it should be a voluntary commitment.

The day before the shadowing, gather all participants for a detailed explanation of the shadowing experience—what to expect, appropriate conduct, and how to discern their own experience as a student. A reception format is a great way to accomplish this task. Last, a volunteer staff member is selected to organize and lead the reflection following the group’s shadowing experience.

The Shadowing Process

Students who will be shadowed need to be paired with the people assigned to follow them. Consider aligning the shadowing individuals with students who represent areas different from their own identification for maximum benefit. For example, you might have an AP teacher shadowing an at-risk or special education student. Diversity of the shadowing assignments is imperative in order to gain the most insight.

To ensure a positive experience for all involved, inform staff well in advance that the shadowing will occur. They need to be assured that no preparation is necessary and that the point of this undertaking is to focus on students, and that it is not an evaluation of any staff member. Implementing the shadowing with a high degree of fidelity will yield the richest results.

The shadower must assume the role of a student, sit in class just as a student would, and allow other students in the class to take the lead in discussions and class activities. The less attention you draw to yourself as a shadower, the better. The people who are shadowing need to set the tone, making the experience as transparent and nonthreatening as possible for the hosting staff, especially if the shadower is an administrator. While this might seem obvious, a small misstep by a shadower can undermine any improvements that flow out of this exercise.

Some students being shadowed will prefer you to stay at a distance, which is OK, but you must follow the students’ schedules, attend their classes, and participate in students’ routines. Some students will enjoy the fact that they can talk with you during the day and introduce you to their friends. In all cases, each student’s personal space and preferences must be respected.

The process of shadowing routinely works well regardless of the setting, but the nuances of the schedule sometimes present challenges. For instance, it might be difficult garnering enough people to conduct the shadowing, as many education professionals do not want to abandon a full day’s work. They may have a hard time keeping themselves from falling into their routine supervisory roles. Students might also be naturally inclined to treat the shadowing staff member as a visitor by trying to highlight the school’s positive qualities. This is admirable but can affect results, so try to dissuade this type of behavior. Prepare the staff in advance of the shadow day to ensure a high-yield experience. Be aware that some adults report that the pace of a high school day is tiring; they may not have time to reflect on their experiences, so encourage them to take a few notes while their thoughts are fresh.

Consciousness of Need

Student shadowing in your school lays the foundation for improving teaching and becoming more connected with student culture. It can also raise the consciousness of the needs of specific groups of students and inform the need for school redesign, ranging from small tweaks to a complete overhaul of the student experience. Ultimately, student shadowing renders a deep dive into the culture and student learning experience in the school. It requires professional courage and a deep, authentic commitment to student learning and well-being.

A principal trying to implement curriculum standards quickly discovers that students in different teachers’ classes learn the “standard curricula” using very different strategies.

Sifting Through Results

Student shadowing might seem overwhelming at first, but principals who have elected to employ the strategy report insights not normally discovered otherwise.

Each time I have helped organize a shadowing at a school or participated in one myself, it has been a profitable experience. I have heard a principal say, “Really? That is happening in my school?” and “I’m so happy to hear our kids are getting the great experience in that program we had hoped for!” Some participants from a recent post-shadow review in a high school in the Northeast offered these comments:

  • Students and teachers were tired from the pace of the day.
  • My student was not organized—not enough time to get organized.
  • An intellectually busy day.
  • My student had practice after school, such as drama, sports; her energy faded as the day progressed.
  • Each class has a different culture.

The changes initiated after a shadowing often result in everything from fine-tuning to wholesale change—such as implementing a new schedule, forming small student cohorts, revamping curricula, or totally redesigning school organization. A principal who elects to do shadowing will discover deepened perspectives and robust possibilities for improved learning.

Ryan Champeau is a school change coach with the Center for Secondary School Redesign and an academy reviewer with the National Career Academy Coalition.

Sidebar: Get Involved

Stanford University’s Shadow a Student Challenge is a fun, illuminating, and supportive campaign that calls on educators to come together to empathize with their students and take new kinds of action at their school. They offer a free workbook that provides support through all four steps: Prep, Shadow, Reflect, and Act. #shadowastudent