Shadowing a Student: A #PrincipalHack That Keeps Me Grounded

As leaders, we’re constantly in iteration, constantly reinventing – and that’s never been more true than during these tumultuous times. We’re experiencing so much new weirdness and so many new challenges, it can feel like we’re in an alternate educational universe.

As the ground shifts beneath our feet, the students remain steady, and so does my commitment to them. Even with the difficulties they’re navigating, they still come to school, they’re still smiling. They still want to experience sports and band and theater and all those wonderful things that make up high school. They still want to have positive relationships with adults here, and they still want to be more successful in June than they were in September. When I feel I’m navigating uncharted waters, I find direction in reconnecting with the way my students experience school. That’s why I’m bringing back a favorite practice of mine: shadowing a student for a day.

An educator I met at a conference inspired me to start doing this several years back. I prepare by selecting a student – usually someone I know pretty well, who already feels comfortable with me – and checking in with their family to make sure they’re OK with it. I tell my faculty, “Sometime in the next week, I might appear in your classroom. I’m not there to evaluate you – I just want to see the school through another perspective.” As I shadow, I sometimes participate in class discussions, and the teachers aren’t afraid to put a math test in front of me – never mind that the last time I worked out an Algebra 2 equation was in 1978. It’s a chance to model some vulnerability and risk-taking and get to know the students in a new way. 

I also get to see the ways seemingly small choices can impact how a school day feels to students. One year, I was thinking of shortening lunch to reallocate a few extra minutes in the schedule. I thought, “If I shave two minutes off three lunches, it won’t be a big deal.” But then, when I was shadowing a student, I was late for lunch. I got my lunch out of my office, and then I had to use the restroom, and then I went up to the vending machine to get water. Well, by that time I had about 12 minutes to eat. I thought, “Oh, this is terrible. These lunches are so short. I can’t take a single minute away here.”

Shadowing takes only one day, requires no extra budget and deepens my connections with the whole school community.

Every time I shadow a student, I share photos and stories on social media. It’s a chance to tell my school’s story in a fun way. I also get a chance to connect with students I don’t know as we learn together as classmates, and I might be able to stop a student in the hallway the next week and say, “Hey, Lillian, I’m so glad I had class with you. You’re killing it in chemistry.”

Most importantly, shadowing helps ground me in the way students experience our school, and that perspective sharpens all of my decisions. Educators and school leaders are powerful people. We have the ability and responsibility to transform students’ lives every day. Our decisions can make the difference in whether they like to come to school. We play a powerful role in how school feels to them.

If you’re feeling mired in the challenges of this school year, or even unsure about how to proceed on some big decisions, I hope I might inspire you like a fellow educator once inspired me – to look at your calendar, find a day you can clear and spend it with a student.

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