Teachers and students live in two realities. There is overlap but there is no real knowledge and little understanding. Let me illustrate. When teachers give homework, do they have any idea as to the context of that homework for the student? Do they know:

  1. The student went to 7 classes today and received homework in 6 of them?
  2. The student is also a member of a club and a sport and has 20 minutes of time today to allocate to one and 2.5 hours to allocate to the other?
  3. The student takes the bus in the morning which is a 25 minute ride, but there is no late bus after practice and must wait for their single parent to show up and they are typically 10 minutes late?
  4. One night a week, the student takes part in religious practices that are 90 minutes long without travel?
  5. Etc.?

The response of the teacher is not just, no, I didn’t know. It is often implicitly, I don’t care. Whether you get the other teacher’s homework done or not is not my problem, do mine!

And, of course, every student is not from the same socio-economic context. Some students take public transport, have to baby-sit for siblings, make supper when they get home, have a part-time job to help pay for tuition or household expenses.

And every student doesn’t come from a fully functional and healthy family environment. Families are not infrequently in disarray – divorces pending, absent parents, sibling rivalries, a parent in jail, fighting.

While it doesn’t solve everything, this is why shadowing a student should be compulsory for every teacher at least once every four or five years: it builds useful empathy for the student’s context. Here’s what one teacher found on their shadow:

  • Students sit all day and sitting is exhausting
  • High school students are sitting passively for 90% of the time they are in class
  • Students have very little autonomy
  • I was told to be quiet and pay attention a lot
  • I was anxious taking the tests even though mine didn’t matter

This teacher’s conclusion was: “I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder. I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations. This could lead to better “backwards design” from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes.”

So we advocate strongly that everyone shadow. You can, of course, do this as a personal / professional activity. You might even shadow a member of your team or choir. But it is most productive when the culture as a whole takes on this activity as part of a regular method for reflecting on the student experience in a holistic way.

As a teacher leader (see the previous article!), you might begin the process by doing it yourself. Write a reflection and share it with your administrator and teaching team. Include some thoughts about simple ways in which the school could benefit the students without compromising standards. These might be thoughts inspired by questions and intentional conversations you had with students as you went through the day. Encourage your team to echo what you did so that they can bring back their own observations and also experience the student experience through a wide-angle lens: the A student who is involved with sports or music; the drama student who has family responsibilities; the B student that everyone thinks is not trying very hard; the student who is struggling with peer issues; an ELL student; an international student. If each member of the team does it, your understanding deepens and the students themselves will see that you value all of them.

Hopefully, that will lead to a divisional and even a school-wide discussion. I have seen such discussions be formative in introducing and implementing schedule change. I have seen discussions leading to a greater involvement of the students in governance beyond the typical clubs and organizing of Prom – dress code committees; Honor Code tribunals; even formal roles in faculty hiring. I have seen discussions lead to a division wide discussion on homework, its value, its practice, its impact, its meaning.

Finally, the hope would be that every faculty member, at some point, would engage in the exercise and bring their own experiences back to the group.

Caveat: shadowing is not just a risk for you but also for the students you are with. Shadowing middle schoolers or upper elementary students is a very different task than shadowing juniors and seniors. It is wise to think of it more as a partnership and to ask the student/s how they would like you to behave. For example, where would they prefer you sit in class; do they mind you listening in on their conversations with each other; can they tell you if they are really not in the mood to talk; what should they tell their friends; can you talk to them in between classes as they go from class to class or wait for the teacher. You should also check with the administrator to see if there are any school protocols that need to be followed in terms of checking in with student’s parents.