Walking in their shoes

April 06, 2018


"You can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes."

Principal Malinda Lansfeldt has a new appreciation for what it’s like to be a student at Afton-Lakeland Elementary School. From riding a school bus to sliding down a slide in high heels, Lansfeldt experienced it all as she participated in the Shadow a Student Challenge last month.

“The 40 minutes on roller blades was terrifying,” Lansfeldt said as she reminisced on her day following around a second grade student. “I was screaming. I was so out of my comfort zone.”

Making school leaders a little uncomfortable was what the challenge was designed to do. It began several years ago as a national effort to help administrators see school through the eyes of students in order to identify meaningful opportunities to improve the school experience and create positive change.

This year was the first time Stillwater schools participated. All of the principals and assistant principals from across the district, as well as the district-level directors and curriculum coordinators took part. They each selected a student to follow for the entire day, from the first bell until the last. They selected students from all grade levels, preschool through high school, as well as from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Leaders had the opportunity to see school through the eyes of Special Education students, those in the academic middle as well as some high-flyers, English language learners, and even a homeschool student who takes classes at the high school.

“We spend our time as administrators making decisions every day that impact our students,” said Bob McDowell, executive director of learning and innovation, who shadowed a high school freshman. “This provided us with an opportunity to understand first-hand what our students are experiencing - what’s working and what isn’t. It changes the way we think and plan by making us more empathetic to the student experience.”

The leaders didn’t just follow the students around, they also participated in the day by completing class assignments, eating school lunch alongside students, playing on the playground, or like Lansfeldt, lacing up rollerblades in gym class. Two principals even rode the bus to and from school with students to fully experience a typical day.

“I was exhausted,” said Chris Otto, an assistant principal at the high school who shadowed a tenth grader. “I carried a heavy backpack, moving from room to room all day long. I felt it was really exhausting, but there were things that helped me energize. One of them was Flex Time - a combination of work time and social time and I needed that.”  

Following the shadow experience, all of the district leaders met together to reflect on what they saw during their day as a “student.” Together they identified what works well for students as well as things that aren’t working as well. They considered things like the physical environment of the classrooms to the number of transitions students have in a day. They also discussed how engaging classes were for students, what types of learning environments seemed to work best, and the relationships between staff and students. Each participant spent time reflecting on their experience and identifying things they will work to do differently in their buildings to improve learning for students.

“It was a powerful experience and I believe we all walked away with a new appreciation for what it is to be a student in today’s classroom,” said Superintendent Denise Pontrelli who spent her day in a Spanish immersion classroom. “Our kids have amazing insights. We just need to stop and listen to what they’re telling us. Their voices will help us make our schools even better places to learn.”