Collecting the Right Data to Understand Our Schools

Usually, administrators visit classrooms to observe educators. In the best version, we’re able to see what the teacher is doing that’s really working. And while I am a big proponent of teacher coaching, this past year, our team has focused our lens on the experiences of  students in our building through intentional, student shadowing. 

The practice of shadowing students has gotten some momentum recently, and even some positive media attention. So the idea itself isn’t necessarily novel. But there is an important shift that happens when you approach shadowing students as collecting valuable, concrete data that you intend to 1) share with your staff and 2) use to make long-term plans for future years. Our school improvement efforts have always included student voice data, but our team wanted to identify an innovation that would collect more meaningful data than surveys often provide.  We were looking for first person accounts of how the school environment was lived and experienced by students.  I worked with my team to adapt one of the current shadowing models  and started by deploying this effort in one of our elementary and one of our high schools. Customizing an existing model was key to transforming an already insightful and relationship-building practice into a strong, district-wide data collection approach. 

When you design a shadow experience, you have to be clear that the purpose of the shadow day is not to observe the teachers, but to immerse ourselves in the student experience with the goal of understanding a part of their story we might be missing. 

  1. A Snapshot of Our Shadowing Experience

Our first task was to hone in on what we wanted to know, and what issues we wanted to be able to address with new solutions. That also meant getting very specific about the target group of students, a key component of effective school improvement efforts.

I always  encourage school staff to look closely at the students who are either marginalized, disenfranchised, or not seeing the same levels of success as other groups. The high school we focused on for this effort was a school where 70% of the students receive Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS) and almost 90% of the student body was Latino or Black.   

Given that race, ethnicity, and income status applied to the majority of students in the school, the school team decided to focus on a smaller group of students who were showing up to school, attending with consistency, but were either not passing or not succeeding in their classes. We wanted to walk with them in their classroom  experience and understand what may be getting in the way of their success.  Our ultimate goal was to make sure the students are not only in the classroom, but supported and empowered. 

Our shadow team consisted of school leaders and central office staff.  As a team, we shadowed each student for their full daily schedule and took notes describing what we saw in the interactions that they had with their teachers, their peers, the work they were being asked to do, and the school environment. During the shadow experience the students were not aware that they were part of the focus group.  As we arrived to classes, we told teachers we were participating in the student shadow, but did not identify the student of focus.  This allowed us an unfiltered perspective on the class.  Another key adaptation we made was to interview each student we shadowed, one-on-one, at the end of the day. We found the combination of observing and interviewing to be the most insightful, and it helped to reality-check our observations against how students describe their experience. 

Here are the three key questions that we asked: 

  • What are some barriers that might be getting in the way of you being successful at school? 
  • What is working for you in your school experience right now? 
  • What would you need to thrive, and what would that look like? 

Finally, we unpacked all of the information we gathered in a very concrete way with the school’s leadership team to identify short- and long-term goals that needed to be set around changing the experience of the kids and supporting their success in school. I can’t overstate the power and importance of this kind of debrief. It’s not just an opportunity to hear from other participants about their shadowing experience, but to confirm your next steps and your timeline to analyze the data and confirm how it will drive your plans for the next school year.   We did not limit our conversation to the students, but folded in our overall observations about the approach to scheduling, courseload, and opportunities for students to interact with staff and one another.

  1. Designing a Shadowing Experience at Your School 

Clarify What You Need to Know 

I always say whenever you’re designing a plan, a process, a project: Be very clear about the purpose and the problem you’re trying to solve. The same is true when you’re designing or adapting a structured student shadowing experience for your building. Clarity of purpose is key to collecting meaningful information. So before you get started, decide what challenge you’re looking to address and ask if shadowing could help you understand it differently – beyond what traditional surveys and observations have offered in the past.   This means, in your school, the shadow focus might look different in terms of the student group, the questions you ask, or the time of year.

Create Your Timeline

If you’re excited about shadowing, that’s fantastic! But if you’re going for meaningful, actionable data, slow down and plan out this experience. This is a time-intensive process – from preparing your participants (and your building) to conducting student interviews to debriefing and analysis. Don’t get caught trying to build your plan as you go. Invest that planning time up front – it’s worth it! 

Choose Your Participants 

Who is going to join you in this experience? Are they going to be from your building only? What about outside staff, central office partners or other specialists in your district? Really consider who will be a part of this experience and try to include people beyond your administrative team. The more people who experience shadowing, the more people you will ultimately have collaborating, accelerating and creating momentum based on the results that you learn. 

Share Your Vision 

Even if they’re not participating as a shadower, your staff might be visited on shadow days. And if they’re not visited in their classrooms, they will still have a role to play in supporting the experience, engaging with the data, and building momentum toward any improvement plans you all create from your results. So have the conversations to build clarity among your staff about why you’re designing a shadowing experience, what you hope it will yield, and how – together – you’ll talk about the experience with students and families. 
Student shadowing can be a truly transformative practice. As a principal supervisor, I was always on a quest to help school leaders think differently about the standard data points that they examine when they’re looking for trends and making improvement plans. Now, our pandemic experiences have shifted our concepts of school improvement even more – as well as the methods that we need to be using to collect information about the story of our school experiences, particularly for kids and families. Especially as we move forward from this vantage point, I highly encourage principals and school leadership teams to consider structured student shadowing experiences to rethink assumptions, see what information might be missing, and craft responsive plans for the years ahead.