Administrators Shadow Students, Gain Insight and Empathy
Administrators Shadow Students, Gain Insight and Empathy

The Convent Elementary Head of School and Middle Form Dean cleared their schedules for an entire day to tackle the challenge of balancing demanding classes, advisory periods and extracurriculars. The exercise changed how they see the student experience.

By the time Bill Jennings sat down for his first class of the day, he had already checked out books from the library, placed his belongings in a cubby, met his homeroom teacher for a short advisory period and attended chapel.

As Convent's Middle Form Dean, Bill is familiar with the busy morning routine of fifth graders, but had never experienced it first hand. "I wanted to get a sense of what a day in the life of our students is really like, and the best way to do that was to live it," Bill says.

Bill's experience is part of a national movement that encourages school leaders to walk in their students' shoes for a day. The "Shadow a Student Challenge," an initiative from global design firm IDEO, Stanford's Institute of Design (or d.School) and the Hewlett Foundation, aims to provide educators with new insight into the lived reality of students.

On a different fall day, Angela Taylor, Head of Convent Elementary, put on a school uniform, slung a heavy backpack over her shoulder and shadowed a seventh grade girl. Her stamina was put to the test by seven 50-minute periods, starting with one-on-one advisory, followed by double English and science periods, then off to music before lunch in the cafeteria. She transitioned from recess to Latin and social studies classes and then to volleyball practice until 5:30 p.m.

"Our students are earnest, engaged and fun," Angela says. "Shadowing a student is the ultimate experience in empathy."

Angela and Bill agree on many of the challenges students face. "The five-minute transition time is very tight for the distance the girls travel from class to class," Angela says, noting that "our campus is very large."

Bill says many students carry backpacks that are needlessly heavy. "I only needed my notebook, my pencil case and my iPad for most of the day," he says. "I want to look at transitions and the logistics of what students need to bring to each class, because I think we can reduce the amount that they carry."

Despite the busy schedules, the day provided plenty of social time, which Angela and Bill both found valuable. "I got 'in trouble' twice for talking during the day because the girls are truly interesting and hilarious," Angela says. "Finding time to connect with each other is clearly an important piece of their school experience."

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