Developing Empathy for Students Through Shadowing

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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There is a significant difference from dropping into a classroom for a few minutes and shadowing a student for a day. The latter allows you to see and feel things you wouldn’t have picked up on in a 10-20 minute increment.

PBS Newshour did a feature on what one assistant principal learned when she followed a ninth grade student for the entire day.

“I want to know what it feels like through the lens of a student,” said Assistant Principal Karen Ritter.

To sum up her day: exhausting, hectic, and tedious.

“I think Alan represents someone who is very representative of our school,” she said. “Middle-of-the-road kid who, when challenged, can reach very high expectations. I think maybe keeping him at a certain level might hinder his opportunity to do that. So I would like to see more opportunities given to students and maybe we need to rethink the way that we place students – not based on test scores.”

Through the Students’ Eyes

As I watched this video and read the transcript I was immediately reminded of an incredibly popular post on Grant Wiggins’ blog based on his personal passion of looking at learning through the students’ eyes. Within that post, an anonymous veteran teacher shadows a student.

“I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention,” the teacher writes. “It’s normal to do so – teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day.”

Turns out the anonymous veteran teacher was his daughter, Alexis Wiggins, an incredible teacher-leader and soon-to-be author.

Start A Conversation

The comments at the end of the blog are also fascinating to read through.

I’ve read and re-read this article so many times , and learned something new with each reading. The message here, that we need to formulate “‘backwards design’ from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes” is such an important one. This post should be read and discussed (often!) at faculty meetings. Our students would appreciate and benefit from that.

I can’t believe that more teachers do not know how hard it is to be a student. Watch your colleagues at meetings. How long does it take before they’re on their cell phones. What we do to kids is inhumane and not at all conducive to learning. I like your solutions!!

This would be a great conversation to have with department chairs, teacher-leaders, an entire faculty to think about what they gleaned from the experience and how that lines up with what they see in their own classrooms.

This is most certainly not an attack on teachers; they are doing the best they can to deliver the curriculum in a stressful environment given the pacing guide, assessment expectations, and burgeoning class sizes. But when we take a step back and see the impact it has on the learner — to feel herded from one assignment to another, to have infrequent breaks to be a kid, to be regularly asked to play a passive role in their own learning — we may see it through fresh eyes.

Take Action

1. Have teachers and administrators read The PBS Newshour report and the reflection of Alexis Wiggins to look for commonalities in both texts.

Draft a set of reflective questions or prompts and engage students in having an open conversation with some clear next steps (both for teachers and students).

2. Design a “bill of rights” or set of learning principles that describe the expectations of every classroom experience.

I worked with staff and students in one New York City public school to co-create this:

  • I have a right to learn in a safe environment.
  • I have a right to be treated with respect.
  • I have a right to understand the purpose of an assignment.
  • I have a right to clear expectations about what is expected from me.
  • I have a right to get assistance in a timely manner when I have a question or problem.
  • I have a right to get feedback on my work so I can improve it.
  • I have a right to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • I have a right to advocate for myself and others.

If teachers and administrators want to take shadowing a student for a day out for a test drive, read this action research guide Grant wrote for shadowing a student.

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