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What a Teacher Learned from Being a “Student” Again

posted Oct 24, 2014, 10:38 PM by HSD Principal

In this anonymous article published on Grant Wiggins’s website, a veteran high-school teacher who recently became an instructional coach says, “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!”

“My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do,” she says. “If there was a lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast as 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).” Here are the big takeaways from the experience:

• Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting. “I could not believe how tired I was after the first day,” says the shadower. Teachers are active during classes, mostly on their feet, and don’t empathize with what school is like for students. “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.” She went home, watched some TV, and was in bed by 8:30. Some implications for her own teaching:

Incorporate a hands-on, move-around activity into every class.

Have a mandatory stretch halfway through each class.

Mount a Nerf basketball hoop and encourage kids to play at the beginning and end of class.

This would sacrifice some class time, but it would be time well spent, and there would probably be a net gain in students’ overall absorption and retention.

• Students are passively listening 90 percent of the time. “In eight periods of high-school classes, my host students rarely spoke,” she says. “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.” What was going on? The teacher lecturing; another student presenting; a student at the board solving a difficult equation; or students taking a test. It was clear that few students felt they were making important contributions to their classes and most felt they wouldn’t be missed if they were absent. Some implications:

Have brief, high-impact mini-lessons followed by engaging checks for understanding.

Set an egg timer for the teacher’s whole-class lectures. “When the timer goes off, I am done,” she says. “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.”

Start every class with students’ questions from the previous night’s reading or the previous day’s class discussion.

“This is my biggest regret right now,” she says, “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.”

• You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long. “I lost count of how many times we were told to be quiet and pay attention,” she says. It’s understandable for teachers to ask for attention and respect, “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.” It’s not that the classes are all boring, but at a certain point, you’ve had enough.

“In addition,” she says, “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.” She remembers rolling her eyes when she had to answer the same question about a test several times. Now, as a “student” taking a test, she was stressed and 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.” Sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance create barriers between teachers and students. Implications:

“Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student,” she says. “We can open the door wider or shut it forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.” We need to dig deep into our personal wells of patience and love.

She would make a public pledge of no sarcasm and ask students to hold her accountable, with money deposited toward a year-end class pizza party for each violation.

She would structure all tests like International Baccalaureate exams, with five minutes of reading time (but no writing) during which questions are permitted.

“I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again,” concludes the shadower. “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.”

“A Veteran Teacher Turned Coach Shadows 2 Students for 2 Days – A Sobering Lesson Learned” in Granted, and…, October 10, 2014, http://bit.ly/1zia3EB; the article is followed by a large number of comments.

Excerpt taken from Marshall Memo 557, Oct. 20, 2014.