What Can Middle Level Leaders Learn from the Student Experience?

As a central office administrator, I valued time in schools talking informally with students. One year I went to a school every Tuesday to assist with student supervision while teachers met in professional groups. This was a wonderful time for me because I could sit with students and have informal conversations. Several groups of students got to know me well as I would consistently go over and speak to their groups.

During one particular morning I asked my typical questions such as, “How does it feel to be in your second year at the middle school?” and “What would make your eighth grade better?” or “Do you feel like you have enough supports to achieve?” One student stepped forward and boldly said, “Dr. W, if you really want to know what it’s like to be a student you would have to be in my shoes for a day. Until then you really won’t understand.”

I left that conversation that day but the student’s challenge stuck with me. As I began to reflect on the suggestion posed to me, I began to think that getting to know the experience of my students by being in their “shoes for a day” would be an interesting learning experience. What could I learn about the students’ perspectives by experiencing school from their vantage points? Would I be able to decipher student voice about ways to improve schools by understanding school from their view? As my mind continued to wonder, I decided to act on the student’s suggestion by shadowing a student for an entire school day.

As I began to share my idea with colleagues and mentors, I realized that our schools are experienced differently by our diverse student population. That expanded my idea to shadowing multiple students with diverse backgrounds for a day. Over the course of five weeks I scheduled one full day per week dedicated to shadowing a student for an entire day.

I wanted to follow students with these profiles: an average performing student, a gifted or high ability student, an English as a new language student, a student who struggles with appropriate behavior, and a student enrolled in the career center program. I asked the building principal to select students who fit these profiles and obtained parent permission to shadow the student. I wanted to experience the entire day with the student, including riding the bus, if that was the student’s mode of transportation.

Once parent permission was obtained, I sent a letter to each teacher on the student’s schedule. I wanted to inform them that I would be in their classrooms on the designated date and that I was assuming the role of a student. Teachers were given guidance to treat me like a student and that I was to fully participate in the class.

In addition, I would not intervene or provide instructional supports to students as I typically would during classroom visits. Teachers shared that they were excited about my experiment and they found it fascinating that I was so interested in students that I would actually take time out of my busy schedule to do this.

In my efforts to fit in as a student, I wore jeans and a school spirit t-shirt during my shadow days. I also wore a name tag that stated I was a student for the day and—for the first time in decades—I carried a backpack. I followed all student rules, which included turning off my cell phone and leaving it in my backpack. Observing this rule was a tough challenge!

The Hard Way Lessons: High Behavior Referral Student

Jay examines artifacts during his visit with the paleontologist.

One student I shadowed had many office referrals for inappropriate behavior on the bus. When I first met Jay (a pseudonym), his body language communicated that he was not thrilled about me shadowing him. After several uncomfortable minutes of me trying to connect, he turned to me and said, “Are you just going to report all this to my counselor?” I was stunned by his question, yet responded by saying that I did not even know his counselor and that I wanted to learn from him and his daily school experiences.

During his first period class, he soon began to act in opposition of teacher expectations. The teacher became frustrated, and we were sent to the office after Jay uttered an inappropriate verbal response. In the hallway, I asked him, “What do we do now?” He began to make faces at students in other classrooms as we walked toward the office.

It took us nearly 20 minutes to get to the office after playing in the hallway. No administrator was available when we arrived so I took the opportunity to try to engage him in conversation. Jay did not share much information, yet did make several remarks about how adults just don’t care about him.

As the day progressed, I continued to ask him questions but changed my approach. Instead of asking him “why” questions I used “what” questions. These types of questions encouraged him to talk more. By lunch time he was helping me navigate through the lunch line and advised me where to sit.

His friends teased him by saying, “I bet you are on perfect behavior today with her.” He replied, “Her has a name and it is Dr. W and she ain’t here to make sure I’m good. She actually wants to see what school is like here from a student and I was the one chosen to show her.” I sat down and quietly smiled inside as this was the first sign that he didn’t despise this process.

We continued throughout the day and he began to make comments to me such as “I’m expected to be bad.” He also began to ask me questions about what I do as an administrator and where I went to middle school.

Toward the end of the day, he leaned over to me in class and said, “Dr. W, can I tell you a secret?” My administrator hat immediately went on and I shared the standard line with him that I would have to share if he told me that he is going to hurt himself or someone else. He said, “No, Dr. W, ain’t nothin like that. Nobody has ever asked me what I want to do, but I want to be a paleontologist.” The teacher reprimanded his behavior because he was talking in class. We didn’t get another chance to talk until the period was over and we were in the hallway.

When I asked him about his goal, he shared the job descriptions of paleontologists as well as the school requirements needed. I was amazed by his knowledge of the profession. We did make a connection that day because he was joking with me by the time we got to the bus to head home.

I followed up with Jay because he captured my heart and left me intrigued. We talked about his career goal and if his current path was going to get him there. After conversations and involving his guardian, we set up a plan for the entire grading period.

He set goals to improve his grades and reduce the number of times he was referred to the office for inappropriate behavior. We also talked about a reward for when he achieved his goals. He thought for several minutes, turned to look me in the eyes, and said, “If I meet these goals I want to meet a paleontologist. Make that happen Dr. W.”

I had no idea how I was going to find a paleontologist in the city, but I knew I had to find one because the look in his eyes told me he was going to meet his goals. Jay worked hard during the grading period and met his goals, and I found a resident paleontologist. During fall break, Jay and I visited the paleontologist. It was a day he will always remember. At the end of the day, the paleontologist said to me, “I am not sure what the story is with this kid, but he is very bright.”

This experience prompted me to shadow many students to continue my development as a leader and learner. The following are excerpt summaries of my learning from each experience.

Middle of the Road: Average Academic Student

  • Average can mean you disappear academically, you are not the highest performing student and not the lowest needing extra support.
  • Being an average student doesn’t mean your social situation at school is also average.
  • High performers get accolades and low performers get remediation supports.
  • Average performing students still need to be pushed academically to stretch themselves.

High Flyer Lessons: High Academic Ability Student

  • Expectation pressures to “be the best” can have harmful effects.
  • High academic ability students may not have opportunities to express or enact ideas.
  • While high academic ability students excel in some areas, there are also areas in which they need to develop.
  • It is important to recognize students’ dispositions and character, not just their academic abilities.

Alternative Pathway Lessons: Career Center Student

  • They have found an interest and a passion in their career choice.
  • Lessons incorporating hands-on learning in the career center need to be included in all classes because they encourage high levels of student engagement.
  • Earning a certificate of completion and college credit serves as a source of motivation for successful course completion.
  • Provide students with college information connected to their career paths.

Cultural Exchange Lessons: Level 1 ENL Student

  • Shadowing a refugee student from Burma, who spoke little to no English, was a memorable experience. Indeed, I learned much from her during our time together.
  • Social time with other students who speak their native language is very important.
  • Place students who do not speak English in groups with peers who do speak English.
  • Find ways to showcase and represent all of the students’ cultures in the school buildings and classrooms.
  • Food, similar to language, is a cultural difference.
  • English language learners may not always understand what is being said, yet they are able to translate dispositions and attitudes of peers and staff members.