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Beyond Data: Building Empathy in Adults Through Student Shadow Days

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 (Anna Briggs/Flickr)

Data are increasingly at the core of efforts to improve instructional quality, but often the data available to school leaders and educators are limited to specific academic points. Many teachers report classroom data have become too overwhelming to be of much use and are often represented in granular, siloed ways that make it difficult for teachers to get a sense of how students are doing overall. And much of the data are divorced from the qualitative experience of learners every day.

In an effort to build empathy for the student experience -- to see school through their eyes -- some school and district leaders are shadowing students through a whole day, adding a new data point to the ever-growing pile.

Recently nearly 1,400 school and district leaders nationwide participated in Shadow a Student Challenge created by the Stanford and IDEO to better understand what goes on at the classroom level where the policies and practices they’ve mandated take effect. In San Francisco, 85 administrators took the challenge over the course of a week, looking for specific ways to improve the schools under their control while also seeking to identify district trends that could be addressed by the central office.*

Marthaa Torres, principal of Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in the Bayview neighborhood, had done one shadow day before and found it enormously helpful to create a more well-rounded picture of students. She rushed between classes, constantly late even as she hurried, finding herself tired and starving at the end of the day.

“I was shocked to see how a student who might be a ‘bad boy’ in one class will be a scholar in the next one,” Torres said. It was a good reminder that experiencing a student in one context is not enough to make a judgment about him. Students respond differently to various contexts, an indicator that bad behavior may be as much a product of the context as it is a behavioral issue.


She also noticed how hard it was to engage in group work, even as an adult. “I was shocked that in all of my confidence as an adult, I had a hard time joining the conversation,” Torres said. Students subtly told her with their body language that they didn’t want to hear what she had to say. “It made me feel like I didn’t want to keep going or trying,” she said. The experience made her rethink how the school uses group work and how effective it is. It became an instructional focus area.

“We spent a great deal of time this year explicitly teaching some of the practices that students need to successfully participate in a group,” Torres said. They focused on things like asking each other questions and talked through what real collaboration looks like.


This year, Torres chose to shadow 10th-grader Anderson Tejada, an English-language learner who she thought might not be challenged enough in all of his classes. Before shadowing, Torres had already tried suggesting to Tejada that he might enjoy taking a math class at a nearby community college, but he denied that he needed more challenge.

For his part, Tejada was very agreeable about having his principal follow him around all day. “I think she wants to know how, she told me she wants to know how I feel,” Tejada said. He explained that how he experiences school is different from anyone else; each student has a unique experience. His insight is one that often gets lost in education discussions that focus on scalability and generalizing observed truths to all students. But ultimately each student brings his or her own life experiences to the classroom, which affect how each interacts and learns.

Tejada was puzzled that Torres thought he might need more challenge. “She thinks that I'm really good and she wants to give me a challenge,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly why.”

I talked to Torres again after she finished shadowing Tejada -- she was exhausted.

“What really struck me throughout the day was how much I felt that he wasn’t challenged, both in terms of the content being covered, but also how class time was being used,” Torres said. She observed how teachers tried to juggle the various learners in their classrooms, often slowing down to make sure every student was understanding. But in those moments, quicker students like Tejada were often left with nothing to do. He carried a Rubik's-cube-type toy in his pocket to keep himself busy while he waited for more directions.

“They were so sweet and compliant,” Torres said of Tejada and another student who had clearly already mastered a lesson. “They didn’t complain, they just completed their sentences and sat back to do their Rubik’s cube.” But to Torres that was evidence they weren’t being challenged.

Sampling of "hacks" suggested by SFUSD administrators in a debrief.
Sampling of 'hacks' suggested by SFUSD administrators in a debrief. (Gentle Blythe/SFUSD)

But that wasn’t true in every class, Torres observed how teachers were able to challenge Tejada either in how he uses language or in the content. For example, a social studies discussion of the graphic novel Maus focused on all the things that led up to the Holocaust. Students were having a sophisticated discussion about historical concepts while using language appropriate for those still learning English.

“I think our goal is to have students engaged in tasks that have multiple entry points,” Torres said. This shadow day challenged her to think about how she can better support her teachers to do this. She noticed that in Tejada’s math class, the teacher gave students a problem with a real-world application (painting the outside of the school building), and had them discuss what information they would need to solve the problem.

“At first it fell a little bit flat because it’s not something that had an easy answer,” Torres said. “But that’s one of the times when I saw Anderson, who is more advanced, and another student who is not as advanced, both engaged in productive struggle.”

Figuring out how to use the insights gained from the shadow day is another challenge for administrators. Last year, Torres wrote a blog post about her experience, but felt that was the wrong way to instigate change. It alarmed her teachers and made them feel exposed. This year, she’s considering trying to give teachers some release time to observe one another’s classrooms so they can come to the same conclusion she has, but on their own.

“That may be more useful than me pushing my conclusions on them,” Torres said. While she’s disappointed that students like Tejada aren’t being challenged, she described it as a “productive disappointment,” a tone she wants her whole staff to take with the information they gain. “We always want to push ourselves to give our students the very best learning experience that we can,” she said.


This kind of Student Shadow Day Challenge, while well-intentioned, can feel a bit gimmicky. Programs like this pop up every few years, and principals report they never realized just how short those passing periods feel from a students’ perspective. But then it fades away, and often little changes systemically. But what if a principal regularly shadowed students as a valuable way to collect a different kind of data?

That’s what Principal Lena Van Haren has done at Everett Middle School in San Francisco's Mission District. Her school regularly looks at data from test scores, data from student surveys, data from classroom walk-throughs. But she says, “the difference with the shadow is there’s really no way to explain things away.”

Van Haren often uses shadowing as a way to dig into data she may have come across in a different format. For example, she noticed that on the most recent student survey, Asian and Pacific Islander students reported very low levels of belonging to the school community. That concerned her, so for her shadow day she’s accompanying a student from that demographic to see how the school might accidentally be alienating this group.

“We do it when we feel like we need more information,” Van Haren said. But, it’s a time-consuming proposition, and often a principal doesn’t have a whole day free to do something like this. At Everett, different educators work shadowing into their schedule for parts of the day or in shifts. The goal is to get information that can be used to focus in on instructional goals, not to critique individual teachers.

“One of the things we look for is who’s doing the heavy lifting,” said Van Haren. She’d like to see students reading, writing, grappling with difficult concepts or explaining their reasoning, not the adults. “As a former teacher I know that there’s so much to learn and only so much time, and sometimes it feels like the most efficient way is to tell the kids a bunch of stuff,” she said. But that’s not how students learn best, so she’s trying to encourage teachers to build in changes that force students to interact with the material.

Since shadowing is a regular part of Everett’s school culture, its purpose is clear to teachers. Van Haren said often teachers are involved in developing the focus of inquiry. That helps build investment in the information that gets uncovered through shadowing.

Once they have a better sense of what is going on in their classrooms, teachers and Van Haren sit down together and look at what best practice says about the point of inquiry. Then, they often set goals for themselves, like “increase academic language use among English-language learners by 10 percent.” This focus informs the professional development they plan to support teachers in reaching the goal.

Van Haren is excited that San Francisco Unified made shadowing a priority this year, especially for district-level administrators who can get very disconnected from what is actually happening in classrooms. She’d like to see aggregated data about everyone’s experiences, specifically about how much time children spend absorbing data and how much time they spend grappling with learning.

“When we all think about our most powerful learning experiences, it’s never just sitting and listening,” Van Haren said. She’d like to see the district set its own goals, look at best practice and then let school sites contextualize those goals for themselves. Then maybe something that will likely only happen every few years, like a districtwide Student Shadow Challenge, could have some lasting impacts.

In San Francisco, administrators who participated in the Shadow Day Challenge were eager to build the practice into their professional lives. “The conversations made it obvious that there was inspiration that came out of the experience to do something more,” said Angie Desuyo Estonina, an elementary supervisor of Multilingual Pathways. She feels energized by the experience and is already thinking of ways she can work with school sites to focus on relationship-building.

The 100 administrators who participated in the challenge met to talk commonalities and "hacks" that could be implemented immediately. Administrators noticed several commonalities, including strong teacher-student relationships, too much sitting, difficulty transitioning between classes or activities, and students behaving differently, depending on who they were with and what was being asked of them.

A few quick hack ideas included giving students more warning time before a transition and asking them what they are doing next so they acknowledge the transition, and creating more opportunities for older kids to help younger ones. Administrators noticed students enjoying the responsibility of being an older mentor, and that translated into better behavior and in some cases a more positive experience of school.


*This story has been updated to reflect greater participation in the national Shadow a Student Challenge created by the Standford d. school and IDEO. And while 100 San Francisco administrators originally signed up for the challenge, only 85 actually participated.

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