This past November, I decided to shadow a student for an entire day, a short Friday, to see through his eyes what a typical day at our high school, Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, looked like. As teachers and administrators, we make decisions all the time that we feel are in the best interests of students, but do we really know what it’s like to be a student in our own schools? I also wanted to show where our priorities lie. Teaching and learning are obviously at the heart of our schools, but we spend far more time as administrators in our offices than in the classrooms. It’s too easy to forget the challenges of being a student, especially in a dual-curriculum school where students often have eight or more classes, plus sports and plays and other extracurricular activities.
I dedicated myself to playing the student role completely. I took all scheduled quizzes and rushed to be on time to classes. The only thing I shirked was homework. I knew, of course, that the teachers were not going to treat me exactly as they did the ninth graders. I also realized that the observer effect was a certainty; my presence in the classroom would affect what I saw. Still, I hoped to emerge from this day a better leader with a more intimate knowledge of what was truly happening in the classes and in my school. As a school leader, I know so much about big-picture items such as budgets and facilities, but in terms of what really happens inside the school, the students are the real experts.
To start my day I attended davening as usual, but pushed myself to lead a part to which I was not accustomed, as we often ask the boys to do. I stumbled twice, including struggling to find the page for Kaddish. As davening concluded, one of the junior boys did a perfect parody of me, letting me know that my shirt, which was not “hunter green,” was holding the high school back from dress-down days because I was not adhering to the uniform code.
My first class of the day, History, was my weakest subject when I was in school. The class began with a scheduled quiz. True to form, I faced three questions that I couldn’t remember much about, with only 12 minutes in which to generate some memories. I included the word “maybe” multiple times, but felt that there was a chance I had done reasonably well on this quiz.
In World Literature, I encountered a list of words including a few that were unfamiliar: tyros, chamois and repined. I was surprised, as I pride myself on my vocabulary. We were asked to write sentences for each word. We then had a structured discussion in groups of three about a video, screened a previous day (which I had not seen), explaining that stress was unhealthy only when it was perceived to be so. The protocol called for each student to add to the point the other was making. This was an interesting exercise because it challenged us to integrate the video, our own point of view and our classmates’ points of view.
Gemara class featured a discussion about whether you need to eat in the location in which you say Kiddush. My student guide helpfully pointed out where we were when I lost the spot in the Talmud. This class centered on a seeming contradiction, which had an intellectually satisfying resolution that my classmates noticed toward the end of the class period.
For our Judaic elective, conversational Hebrew, we watched a movie in Hebrew. My Hebrew is fairly weak, but I enjoyed hearing my classmates comment to each other in Hebrew about the film. After lunch, in a regular Hebrew class we took an unscramble challenge, with the winner receiving a homework pass. We then worked on a 27-question worksheet, on which I knew precisely zero of the answers. The teacher stopped by to help me at one point, but I was surely her worst student. If this were truly a class for me day in and day out, I would have been overwhelmed and depressed, as I truly could not keep up. Granted this would not have been my placement, but certainly there are students who struggle in many of our classes who probably feel this way.
In Chumash class, we discussed a challenging question in the parashah: Why does the Torah spend time discussing the rape of Dinah? Students ventured several answers, and the teacher shared an opinion that part of the reason had to do with showing Yaakov’s development as a person, where he now disapproved of trickery. This struck me as a good lesson for teens. I enjoyed listening to classmates’ opinions and found myself agreeing with many of them.
Students in Biology were divided into two groups and asked to prepare a short presentation for six-year-olds: one explaining photosynthesis, the other on cellular respiration. I tried to be a part of the photosynthesis group but found I had almost nothing to add. After working together to prepare, the groups delivered their presentation. I did not feel like a contributor in this class, though I recognized that I would probably be evaluated as part of my group and not on the basis of my own minimal participation.
At the last session, Algebra II, we arrived in time for a quiz. As I was a math major, this was a class I had been eagerly anticipating. I checked my work carefully, as I would have been embarrassed to make mistakes.
And thus ended my day as a student, as the 3:00 bell rang, dismissing us for the weekend.
My takeaways from this experience:
1. Being a student is tiring. Through no fault of the teachers, I found myself falling asleep toward the end of the day, even during a quiz I was taking! Encouraging students to stand up, stretch or move in some way is a good idea.
2. It’s nice to have one subject you feel really good about, especially if there is another subject that makes you feel clueless.
3. Classes where the teacher dismisses the class, rather than the bell dismissing the class, seem more serious.
4. Teaching beyond the bell seems just fine… until you arrive in the next class and are chastised for being late.
5. Getting quick feedback is so helpful. My history teacher texted me that afternoon that I had earned an 85% on the quiz. Since the questions were still fresh in my mind, I could review the material in order to provide stronger answers next time.
6. The teachers who have a system for phones are wise. Asking students to put their phones in a specific location at the start of the class made a big difference in focused attention.
7. Getting students to participate is a wonderful way to get them invested in the class and makes the time go by much more quickly.
8. Group work is a lot of fun, but it was apparent that some people exercised leadership and others just sat there. It is probably wise to have a component of individual assessment included in the evaluation.
9. This kind of visitation provides a much more thorough way to observe teachers than a five-minute drop-in.
10. Students and teachers enjoy seeing administrators in a student role.
Most importantly, this was a humbling experience. I attended as a student for only a single day, without homework or studying for tests and quizzes. Yet I fell asleep at 7:30 that evening. I didn’t have to repeat the experience the next day, and the day after, and the day after that. My grades didn’t count or make an impact on my college acceptance or Israel program choice. I did not have any difficult social situations with my classmates, nor did I have any teachers I thought might hate me. Still, it was an exhausting day and made me appreciate what our students go through on a daily basis.
Students and parents who heard about the shadow day seemed to be most touched by the care. The idea that an educator cared enough about the experience of their children to walk in their shoes for a day was well received. Not a single person questioned whether this was an appropriate use of a “work day.” Instead, parents and students have come back to me since then with comments that begin, “You understand because you were in classes that day…”
It also reminded me that almost everything of consequence in a school happens in our classrooms. As head of school, I need to prioritize classroom time, and I need to hear regularly from students about their experiences. Students’ perceptions are their reality.
It is also a humbling experience to attend a class that you know is a weak spot for you. But our students go through it daily. As adults, we generally work from and with our areas of strength; students don’t have that choice. We must remember this and not just assume that, if students are not doing well, it’s because they are not trying hard enough.
As a school leader, it’s not only wise to remain humble, it’s imperative. My shadowing experience reminded me that administrators need to recognize their time and skill limitations. Just as I learned in the group experience, tasks should be distributed to those best suited for them, and the leadership of the administrative team can and should shift depending on the focus.
I believe that the experience of shadowing a student is essential for all educators. We must put ourselves in the place of those individuals for whom the entire operation is designed. I plan also to encourage teachers to shadow, and to share their reflections with their peers at a faculty meeting. I think we will all be a little bit humbled and have much to learn from this shared experience.