Shadowing for Empathy

While it can be nearly impossible to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, it is possible to walk a mile beside them. We talk about how important empathy is, and we encourage kids to feel it, but it can be tough. You can imagine what a situation might be like, but unless you have experienced it, imagination is as far as it goes. Even experience is imperfect as all situations are in some way unique. Still empathetic feelings bring us closer together and farther from judgement.

In the last two weeks I have had the opportunity to spend a day shadowing a student and another teacher at my school. In both cases, I recognized the limits of my experience but also learned quite a bit as well. I highly recommend the practice to all teachers.

My day shadowing a junior began with a Spanish quest. I tried my best and enough of my own high school Spanish came back to allow me to get a few answers right. Then, I experienced what I have only seen from the other side of the desk – I finished early because I was unable to fully answer the questions. I kept going back over it and guessing a few more things each time, until I was unable to do even that. Then, I felt that awkwardness of not working when everyone else was. Of course, there was a limit to my experience because I was not being graded. There was a little pride at stake, though. In Calculus class, I was so lost that I found myself on Facebook and Twitter sharing my cluelessness with others. I did begin to shift mentally into student mode and participated in a few side conversations and jokes during the class. It was really hard to sit there and pay attention when I did not know and did not really want to know what was going on. I was so far out of my league. The final class of the day was English. I enjoyed feeling on firmer ground there. I participated easily in both the banter and the activities. I was actually beginning to feel a little different. Then, I went back to my classroom with my teacher homework to do, rather than their student homework. Limits again.

Today, I spent the morning in the classroom with a colleague who teaches fourth grade. I was there for the Morning Meeting. Then, I went to an assembly with the class. After that, while the students were at PE, I stayed with the teacher and chatted in the Faculty Room while she got a math assessment ready for later. The highlight of the morning was a Skype with a class in Connecticut about a book both classes had read, Wonder. The kids asked questions back and forth, first about the book and then about their respective schools at the end. Immediately from there, we had math. The assessment caused anxiety, despite the efforts of my colleague to tell them it was a check for understanding. I was struck by a few things from my morning. There are kids of all types at all ages. I could see smaller versions of many of the kids I teach in her students. Clear boundaries are incredibly helpful for kids. I could work on clarifying my expectations, I think. Test anxiety begins really early. Keeping fourth graders attentive and knowing when they need a break collectively or individually is a really big challenge. I knew that intellectually, but I felt it when I was in the room.

People have been asking me my takeaways from the shadowing experience, and I really think the biggest one comes down to increased empathy. Shadowing may spark new ideas and conversations abut teaching and learning, but the most important part is really hard to put into words. It’s the feelings I got that have really matter.

In a somewhat related exercise, I had my students prepare and teach lessons to the class, and I became a student. I will be debriefing with them tomorrow on their experience – the same day my fourth grade colleague comes to shadow me. Full circle.


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