Bridging the Opportunity Divide

What Happens When a Teacher Walks in Her Students’ Shoes?

November 7, 2014
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What Happens When a Teacher Walks in Her Students’ Shoes?
A teacher’s actions may deter a student from speaking up or asking questions during class. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
This is something that every educator should consider doing.

What is it like to be a high school student today?

In a viral blog post, Alexis Wiggins, a 15-year teaching veteran, describes what she learned after she shadowed a sophomore one day and a senior for another. She said her experience was “so eye-opening” that she wishes she could go back to every class she’s ever taught and “change a minimum of 10 things.”

Her story, titled “A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned,” was originally posted by Alexis’s own father, Grant Wiggins, a former teacher himself and the current president of Authentic Education. It has been read more than 760,000 times.

Here are three key things she learned:

1. “Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.”
Besides walking from class to class, Wiggins sat the entire day and found herself completely drained from so much sitting. She writes, “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.”

What she would do now:
1. Require a mandatory stretch halfway through the class.
2. Put a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of her door and encourage kids to play in the first and final minutes of class.
3. Build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day.

2. “High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes.”
Wiggins found that students weren’t offered a chance to speak up in class — most of the time they were just taking notes while the teacher droned on and on. “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.”

What she would do now:
1. Offer smaller lessons with engaging activities that keep students on their feet.
2. Set a timer to not go overboard with the lecturing. “When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story.”
3. Start every class with at least 15 to 20 minutes of questions students might have about the previous lesson. “This is my biggest regret right now – not starting every class this way,” she writes. “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 15 or 20 minutes of this.”

3: “You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.”
Wiggins realized how a teacher’s actions may deter a student from speaking up or asking questions: “[If the person teaching me] answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again.”

What she would do now:
1. Show more “patience and love” when dealing with students who have questions. “Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student,” she said.
2. Stop the eye-rolling or the snarky, sarcastic remarks to students.
3. Create a specific time period for students to ask all their questions.

After her experiment, Wiggins concludes, “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.”

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