Monday, February 16th, 2015...9:43 pm

The Teacher Becomes the Student

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Back in October a blog post about a veteran teacher following a student for 2 days went a bit viral. My friends shared it on facebook, retweeted it on twitter and my principal was among the many who read and shared it. Instead of just reading and sharing, though, he offered us all the opportunity to recreate the same experience on our campus for a day – pick a student and shadow them for the whole day. Do all the work. Sit in all the desks. Take all the tests and quizzes. Eat lunch in the cafeteria.

So I did.

The initial blog that circulated boasted in its headline that the teacher had a “sobering” experience. It talked about what she learned she’d been doing “wrong” and all the ways she saw students suffering in their long days at school.

My experience was not sobering. Quite the opposite, actually. My experience was energizing and confirmed for me that when teachers continue to learn, schools can look and feel just as we hope they should.

Student for a day

In this initial blog post the blogger noted things that have to change:

She said students sit all day. While two of the classes were mostly seated due to writing tasks, the others were not. I was not tired of sitting all day like I often am at the end of professional development.

This was most evident in math class. Math class, also, ironically, was my favorite. My student, knowing that I am an English teacher, was very prepared to help me prepare for pre-cal all day. She loves math much more than she loves writing essays for me. The class started with a quick warm-up that looked a bit like the homework my student had used to teach me earlier in the day. Then, most fun of all, we got up out of our seats, left the classroom for the big open hallway and did a math scavenger hunt. It was last period on a Friday before Valentine’s day and all the kids were engaged in a fun activity to review before a quick quiz at the end of class. (I took the quiz and I think I did ok. That’s saying a lot since I took pre-cal 20 years ago. )

She said students sat and passively listened for 90% of the classes. That wasn’t at all the case for me. I’d say it was less than 25% of each class that was passive listening. There were opportunities to talk to peers and ask questions as we worked in all classes. Students worked together through the challenges that the teacher set. All classes allowed for an encouraged collaboration as a way of pushing students towards the learning goals. I wouldn’t have succeeded on the assigned tasks otherwise.

In AP US History and in my own class (where my student teacher was at the helm), students talked out their thinking and worked together on skill specific and focused work. They weren’t expected to struggle or suffer in silence, but rather to ask questions as groups and figure it out together, to point each other in the right direction. The teacher was there to help, but the teacher wasn’t seen as the one and only source of help or answers. That seemed really healthy to me.

The initial blogger said she felt like a nuisance all day. I never ever did. Not once. I sat in classrooms with smiling teachers who, on Friday the 13th, while students were hopped up on pre-Valentine’s day sugar and hormones, still seemed like they really wanted to be there. They had well planned activities that students worked through. There were reminders to put phones away, to pay attention to how much time was left, but never once did I hear sarcasm or snark or remarks that showed a lack of patience or respect.

Instead I saw, all day long, a community of learners. Teachers who had clearly learned from each other and from the good professional development we are lucky to have from the Creative Learning Initiative. And students who (like I already knew) impress me in so many unmeasurable ways, ways that may be reflected in grades and test scores, but most likely are far beyond the story those pieces of data tell.

I started my day in band. It wasn’t a normal day since the director’s were out at a conference, but perhaps that was an even better day to visit. Directors not there… mayhem ensues? Nope. Not at all. What I saw in the band hall was what we hope happens when we adults aren’t watching (and there were adults – two band parents and a substitute). The students took initiative without anyone breathing over their shoulder. The students became the teachers. Groups practiced pieces together. Groups with no impending performances formed study groups to help each other learn math and physics and English before tests that day. My awesome host student tutored me in pre-cal and I was so impressed with her ability to teach me. She knew here stuff so well I did too by the end of the class.

And lunch. This was the most terrifying part for me. I have been at my school for ten years. This was exactly the first time I ever went to the cafeteria during lunch time. I should be embarrassed to say that. I’m not sure what I expected, but it was at lunch time that I started to realize that this experience wasn’t going to be sobering in the same way it was for the other teacher. Instead, I sat at that lunch table eating the chips and sandwich I brought while the students didn’t at all freak out that there was a teacher in their midst. They talked about their days and their friends and their weekend plans. And I sat there and thought that I hope my own children sit at such a table with such friends when they are 16.

I shadowed a student and, while I learned and reflected on my own practice (I might share that in another post), I mostly learned what I already pretty much knew: I am lucky to work at a school where everyone is a learner and where students and teachers form a true community.

We tend to share and retweet and comment on the “sobering” lessons, the failed tests, the teachers who aren’t teaching, the students who aren’t on track. But our schools aren’t failing and our teachers and students are working hard and learning and growing together in creative and innovative ways. I saw it first hand.

Can we still improve? Of course. But shouldn’t that be true of all professions? We are always learning and growing and changing. That’s what will make us successful.

And I’ll let you know if I passed the pre-cal test as soon as I get it back 🙂


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  • It just goes to show how the atmosphere and culture of the school affects so much. I’m glad that you work at a school that lives what it believes. I would love to go to that math class, BTW!
    Star Traci recently posted…I Remember When… A Blogging MemoirMy Profile

  • I love this! I’m an AVID teacher and have followed my kids around during various’s absolutely eye opening. What a great experience, and it sounds like you have a really supportive admin. I’m glad you found it to be a positive experience!
    Jennifer Wolfe recently posted…Real Love In Real LifeMy Profile

  • Such refreshing and hopeful observations! Your brave and open-minded decision to “be a student” illustrates your real belief in being a “lifelong learner.” And such decisions and beliefs make you the best of teachers.

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