Shadowing Students: Lessons a Veteran Teacher Learned (Part 2)

The following account was posted on Grant Wiggins’ blog October 10, 2014. It comes from a veteran HS teacher who just became a Learning Coach in her building. Because her experience is so vivid Wiggins kept her identity anonymous. But nothing she describes is any different from his experiences or my own experience in sitting in high school classes in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Moreover, I, Craig Peck, and Heather Kirkpatrick shadowed 12 high school students for a study of classroom technology use in 1998-1999. Since then I have shadowed three students in 2010 for another study of high schools. My experience in shadowing (and interviewing) the students is consistent with this teacher’s account.

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching my own classes; I am the High School Learning Coach, a new position for the school this year. My job is to work with teachers and admins. to improve student learning outcomes.

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

My class schedules for the day
(Note: we have a block schedule; not all classes meet each day):

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Geometry

9:30 – 10:55: Spanish II

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: World History

1:25 – 2:45: Integrated Science

The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Math

9:30 – 10:55: Chemistry

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: English

1:25 – 2:45: Business

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately change the following three things:

  • mandatory stretch halfway through the class
  • put a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play
  • in the first and final minutes of class
  • build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day. Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine. I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.

Key Takeaway #2

High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.

Obviously I was only shadowing for two days, but in follow-up interviews with both of my host students, they assured me that the classes I experienced were fairly typical.

In eight periods of high school classes, my host students rarely spoke. Sometimes it was because the teacher was lecturing; sometimes it was because another student was presenting; sometimes it was because another student was called to the board to solve a difficult equation; and sometimes it was because the period was spent taking a test. So, I don’t mean to imply critically that only the teachers droned on while students just sat and took notes. But still, hand in hand with takeaway #1 is this idea that most of the students’ day was spent passively absorbing information.

It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it.

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing. I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Offer brief, blitzkrieg-like mini-lessons with engaging, assessment-for-learning-type activities following directly on their heels (e.g. a ten-minute lecture on Whitman’s life and poetry, followed by small-group work in which teams scour new poems of his for the very themes and notions expressed in the lecture, and then share out or perform some of them to the whole group while everyone takes notes on the findings.)
  • set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. This is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.
  • Ask every class to start with students’ Essential Questions or just general questions born of confusion from the previous night’s reading or the previous class’s discussion. I would ask them to come in to class and write them all on the board, and then, as a group, ask them to choose which one we start with and which ones need to be addressed. This is my biggest regret right now – not starting every class this way. I am imagining all the misunderstandings, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the collaborative skills, and the autonomy we missed out on because I didn’t begin every class with fifteen or twenty minutes of this.

Key takeaway #3

You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention. It’s normal to do so – teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It’s really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out. Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day – that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.

In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication. I would become near apoplectic last year whenever a very challenging class of mine would take a test, and without fail, several students in a row would ask the same question about the test. Each time I would stop the class and address it so everyone could hear it. Nevertheless, a few minutes later a student who had clearly been working his way through the test and not attentive to my announcement would ask the same question again. A few students would laugh along as I made a big show of rolling my eyes and drily stating, “OK, once again, let me explain…”

Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed. I was anxious. I had questions. And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions. Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student. We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.
  • I would make my personal goal of “no sarcasm” public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it. I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year. In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.
  • I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do – a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished. This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

 I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder. I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations. This could lead to better “backwards design” from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes.



“Wow. The response to this post has been overwhelming – over 150,000 page hits so far – and over 800 emails to me requesting further info.

So, instead of replying by email, my response and resources I promised can now be found below:

AE Student Survey 2014-15

AE Shadow Student

Survey Letter 2014



Filed under how teachers teach

16 responses to “Shadowing Students: Lessons a Veteran Teacher Learned (Part 2)

  1. Oh yes, I loved this blog post when it came out, and even used it in a job interview teaching demonstration with pre-service teachers! Grant Wiggins later revealed ( that it was his daughter Alexis who wrote the post. An interesting tidbit from his follow-up post:
    “There were hundreds of comments about the cause of this HS drudgery being due to NCLB, Common Core, teacher accountability, and standardized tests. OOPS – as I noted early in one of my few replies to comments, Alexis teaches in a private school. Indeed, she teaches overseas in an American International School. So those many reader comments were a bit of projection – which, itself, is perhaps worthy of another post. The fact that such passive learning exists in good private schools (and colleges) only makes the matters raised in her post MORE important: why do we continue to make even elite education so passive when we don’t have to?”

    As you also point out, many aspects of “the grammar of schooling” (H/T to you!) clearly pre-date—and persist in spite of—many different policy initiatives.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks so much, Emily, for the follow-up information. I had not known who the teacher was or where she taught. Now all of my readers will.

    • Alice in PA

      There is a myth that private schools are better than public when the data shows that, while private schools get better scores and their kids go onto college more, it is due to the pool of students from which they draw. I have taught in both private (urban) and public. There is plenty of pure lecture in both. There is plenty of engagement in both. The Lubienski’s have a book out about their study of private versus public schools and have found that public school teachers have more advanced pedagogy and earn better scores when adjusted for socioeconomic status. They also tend to have kids who are more difficult to educate.

  2. JMK

    I read this post when it came out and rolled my eyes. To me, the post is a bit narcissistic and gooey, almost a caricature of what teachers are supposed to be like. The revelation that they weren’t thinking every minute about their students puts them into spasms of agony and remorse. It’s not really about the students, it’s about *them*. Here’s what *I* learned, here’s how bad *I* feel, and so on.

    But clearly the zeitgeist of the post was against me, so I moved on. Then, when Grant posted a second time (Emily’s linnk) on the essays’ tremendous popularity as well as the near unanimous agreement that Sarcasm is Bad, I felt moved to response:

    I got as many “thumbs up” as “thumbs down”–well, actually more of the first. 47-46 thumbs up on the original post, 22-12 on a followup about my skepticism of Grant’s surveying–which means that many people reading the post weren’t on board with the rapturous enthusiasm, but didn’t comment. I think that’s worth emphasizing: lots of teachers reading along probably disagreed, but didn’t want to risk the crap they’d get.

    Two things from my original comment: a) I shadowed as part of ed school, and was fascinated with no horror involved. b) kids today sit for hours on end texting and playing video games, but sitting in school is an unimaginable strain? Yeah, not buying.

    One thing not in my original comment: There are 30 kids in a class. If a class is incomplete any day that students are missing, if kids can’t really learn if everyone isn’t there to participate, then the class is broken. It won’t work. It’s another of those sentiments that sounds wonderful but is not just impractical, but a tad silly.

    I absolutely agree that teachers shouldn’t spend every minute lecturing. I am also very much on board with the notion that all teachers should understand that kids are compelled to be in school and that most of them are less than thrilled about the idea. I do not believe I am part of the “problem” she is appalled by.

    However, school isn’t any one thing. It’s a thousand experiences by a thousand kids in a thousand environments. Definitely n to n. And it’s never, ever going to be fun more than occasionally. At best, we can shoot for ‘interesting and not a total waste of time’.

    At base, there is a useful idea: high school teachers should mix it up. But she is arguing that students have a horrible experience in school and teachers are responsible for it. That’s a much tougher case to make, and it detracts from the point.

    And if I couldn’t be sarcastic, much of the joy would be sucked out of teaching. But perhaps it’s a semantic issue. I actually blogged on that point here:

  3. Pingback: Shadowing Students: Lessons a Veteran Teacher Learned (Part 2) | Teachers Blog

  4. This is a thrilling account of what one teacher learned when he shadowed a student through a typical high school day. The changes he would make are also “right on” for authentic learning in any class, chemistry to Latin. Thank you, Grant.

  5. Pingback: Shadowing Students: Lessons a Veteran Teacher L...

  6. David

    My first thought is that “wow those are long class periods!”. In my own school, we have 40 minute periods that meet every day. These 90 minute classes looks like a block scheduling set-up, which then begs the question if this is one of the issues to take into consideration (i.e., does block scheduling enhance student learning). I haven’t taught a class that long since I was a university prof with 80 minute sessions–then I did some of the “moving around” breaks with the students, especially when I noticed too many glazed-over eyes.

    As an advocate of direct instruction techniques, doing effective in-class assessments is important and I think this highlights that point. Not just lecuring but actively engaging the whole class through active questioning and other forms of engaged feedback is as important as the lecture content itself. Even in my 40 minute classes (5-7 mins of which get sucked up by attendence taking and housekeeping), I often pause and start a Q&A session to make sure my stuents are understanding the content and to clear up any questions they might have.

    • As a literature and writing teacher I loved the 90 minute class period. We could begin with free writing, move on to a literary piece (reading from a novel or from the textbook or from handouts I had created to fit thematically with the books. They we’d choose a passage (one word, one sentence, one paragraph) and respond to that, share responses with a partner, then hear some from the class, and do it all over again. I did everything my students did. Had a student desk at the front of the classroom where I sat and worked. When partnering, I would wait and see who needed a partner then move to their spot with a chair.

      All day long I was writing and reading with my students. I told them I’d never give them “busy work assignments” because it would mean I was doing “busy work, too.” At the end of the class they had about 20 minutes or so to begin their homework or for silent reading whatever it was that remained unfinished.

      I also had each of my students work in a spiral notebook, 5 pages saved in front for the Index. I kept the same notebook myself. When I read their journals, the would choose three of their strongest responses (ones they wanted me to read) and three they felt unsatisfied with. Anything private they turned the page in half and I didn’t read. Except for one time when I was worried about a suicide possibility. One time in six years!

      I kept a three-ring notebook with the assignments and handouts for each class so when a student was absent for any reason, they could find out what to do (read and write) in their journals. I collected 10 of these every Friday and read them and responded to the 3 strongest, 3 “weakest”. I encouraged my students to use the strongest/their strengths and apply them to their weakest. And I had different students read my journal, too. I loved what they noticed, asked about etc.

      I did the same when I taught teachers as undergraduates and as graduate students.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for describing what you did teaching writing and lit when you had 90 minute classes, Ann.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment, David.

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