Reflections on the Teaching Coach Who Shadowed Students

For 20 years, I urged colleagues to imagine themselves in the shoes of the students as they go through the school day. I also pushed for more parents shadowing their children at school. Then I read "A Veteran Teacher Turned Coach Shadows 2 Students for 2 Days -- A Sobering Lesson Learned," and realized that I had never shadowed a student for a full day. That is sobering!

Grant Wiggins published this great post by an anonymous teacher. In the comments section, he disagreed with one of my conclusions regarding the post (regarding the harm done by Block Scheduling) but I don't want to respond in a debater's manner. I want to muse about ways that the institutionalizing of teachers shadowing students could enhance future discussions.

The wisdom of the learning coach who shadowed students could inform two types of discussions. The first issue is whether our schools need a sharp break from the teacher-centeredness that is the norm in our system. The second is whether we can learn from the coach's experience and introduce more student-centeredness into schools, while aiming for incremental improvements in teaching and learning.

The student shadowing experience obviously presents evidence why it would be great if we could systematically achieve transformational change. If I had a magic wand, of course I'd wave it and replace the "Sage on the Stage" pedagogy. The coach's post is a reminder that we should aspire for truly radical visions of what schools could be.

But, real world, I suspect the most beneficial conversations would be using this contribution to discuss doable adjustments. As commenter Matt put it, "I hate to go all Larry Cuban on this, but these structures and routines of school are amazingly stable across all types of schools, no matter the setting, socioeconomic status, funding or reform movement personal goal."

The first practical lesson I'd draw from the student shadow is that we should be far more cautious in adopting experiments like Block Scheduling. The coach's school seemed to operate under AB Block, where a student who misses class on a Thursday will often go from Tuesday to Monday without seeing his teacher, making continuity improbable, and teacher-directed remediation more necessary. I don't know if the coach was in a high-poverty school or not (especially one with high absenteeism, student mobility, and chronic disorder, along with a lack of capacity for project based learning).

But, when AB Block was originally imposed on my inner city school, we were told that it was intended as a sink or swim policy. It was designed to render the continued use of the old-fashioned teacher-driven instruction inconceivable. We then created an environment where students had to endure that impossible pedagogy for ninety minutes at a time, all day long, every day. At its best, the AB Block silver bullet made teaching somewhat more impersonal (at our school) and squandered years of energy that could have been devoted to really addressing students' aspirations.

Secondly, teachers were first told that we would have to do what the coach now recommends, provide a "mandatory stretch halfway through the class." We were told to overcome our fears that it would be too difficult to get disorderly students back to work. Only later, did teachers learn that because many classes spun out of control during the break that we would be prohibited from taking our students to the restroom during the movearound.

Back then, a veteran teacher like me could push back and allow my students to adjourn to the restroom, without risking a reprimand or worse. By the way, when my students were fatigued, I'd also engage in creative insubordination and we would take a whole-class break during 55 minute classes. That would be doubly risky in today's blame-the-teacher-first environment.

I'd feel most comfortable using the coach's lesson to discuss priorities for professional development. Especially at a time when professional development is increasingly dominated by true believers in one-size-fits-all standards and testing, the shadowing experiment gives evidence for a full court press in teaching teachers to pay more attention to their students' needs. The coach's egg timer recommendation is an example of a doable method, that has continually been recommended to teachers, but that has had disappointing results because, often, it was just one of a long list of policies imposed on us.

We should impose fewer mandates on teachers as we put more political capital into techniques such as that of the coach who now sets an egg timer and "every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story." (By the way, I would delegate that task to my high school students and obey their instruction when my minutes were up. Also, I aimed for long, slowed-down units that allowed for deep engagement with challenging historical concepts. But, when my students said it was time to move on, it was time to move on.)

I was taken aback that the coach saw "a good deal of sarcasm and snark," and confessed to also engaging in it. Perhaps a campaign against sarcasm should become a prime professional development priority. Perhaps we should concentrate on curtailing that indefensible practice before moving to other pedagogical issues.

The best observations involved the recommendation that questions should be seen as "an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student." Poignantly, the coach asked the "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." That clearly is a call to action.

Similarly, there is a dual purpose to using the first part of class to capture the students' attention and to create momentum for engaging interactions. Making such an effort to sell the lesson and inspire the greatest possible energy level shows students that the teacher not only cares about the subject but also about them as persons.

I have been impressed with research on the power of improved questioning methods in order to raise instructional rigor. I have long believed that better Socratic questioning might be the second best strategy for improving instruction. More importantly, the student shadow post confirms my belief that the top priority for professional development is asking questions that draw out the students' deepest feelings, and advance the nurturing of trusting and loving relationships.

Making such a proposal in an age of Common Core, where students' feelings are subordinated to close reading of the all-important "Text," might be a bridge too far. It's a risk worth taking, however.

And, that leads to the final lesson I would draw from the student shadow experience. Yes, priority #1 should be helping teachers form respectful, personal bonds with students. Priority #2 should be the shunning of simplistic answers, ranging from Block Scheduling to Common Core testing. This leap first, look second search for quick fixes contributes to the ultimate "opportunity cost" of failed education experiments. It undermines the absolutely essential effort to help teachers walk in their students' shoes, to listen and respond to their kids.