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How to Use Student Shadowing to Understand Students’ Lived Experiences 

Listen to authors Candace Raskin and Melissa Krull talking about navigating resistance to equity work on the Leaders Coaching Leaders podcast with Peter DeWitt: 


Truly knowing our schools requires qualitative data as well as the quantitative data that makes up much of our data dashboards. Student shadowing uses direct observation to provide real-time qualitative evidence of what is happening in our schools, in order to lead equity work. 

When one of our institute participants, the principal of a diverse middle school, spent the majority of a school day shadowing a student from his town’s Somali community, he unearthed some surprising data. The seventh-grader was a member of an immigrant family and learning English as a Second Language (ESL). After reviewing his notes, the principal tallied that the student had been given only two opportunities to speak the entire day. She had been spoken to in every class, but invited to participate only twice. The principal was astonished to discover that in spite of the Title III language programs initiated in his school, an ESL student faced this kind of isolation rather than being engaged in her new language. Following a student to witness facts about their learning, interactions, relationships, and simple daily experiences uncovers the truth about our schools in exacting detail.  

The key to student shadowing is staying objective, making low-inference observations and notes that stay with the facts without interpretation, opinion, or judgment. Watching and noting what occurs rather than inferring why creates an objective overview of the student’s experience. The example in Figure 5.3 from our book, Principal Leadership for Racial Equityshows a principal’s notes for shadowing a seven-year-old Black boy. After analyzing the data, the principal recorded a summary of the details and organized the facts on the second page. Using this or another template as discussed in the activity at the end of this section will help you shadow a student effectively and glean vital information from your observations. 

After spending as much of your day as possible shadowing one student, your notes become a set of raw data that can pinpoint areas that need to be addressed. Do you need to discuss instructional practices with a teacher? Are some students expressing disparaging biases toward another student by smiling and glancing at friends when that student speaks? How will you deal with that behavior? The following activity is a guide for analyzing your notes and planning the changes that need to be made. 

Activity: A Day in the Life: Shadowing a Student  

Step One: Download a Student Shadowing Template from the website racialquityleadership.com (Ch. 5 section) and schedule a school day to spend the majority of your time shadowing a student.  

Step Two: Choose a child of color to shadow. 

Step Three/Shadowing Protocol: As you observe your student, note facts about his/her experiences without filtering them through your interpretations or opinions. Describe actions such as body language, facial expressions, and teacher and fellow students’ words and behaviors. 
You can draw a diagram on a separate sheet to show where the student is sitting in class and create your own shorthand to record some statements verbatim (T for teacher, S for shadowed student, WFS for white female student, etc.). For example, one entry may note what happened with the student fifteen minutes into the class: 15 min, T talking, S puts down her pencil & sits back. Stops looking at T and stares at the table.  

Collect and include perceptions of your school that you have heard from teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members: 

  • What do they say when they talk about your school? 
  • What words/phrases do you hear in the teachers’ lounge? 
  • What do you hear students say about their teachers? 
  • In the grocery store, what do you hear community members say about your school?  

Step Four: Briefly summarize your notes and organize your findings as shown in the example on page two of Figure 5.3. 

Step Five: Reflect on your findings: 

  • What essential insights around teaching and race emerged for you? 
  • In your specific circumstance, what adult actions concern you on behalf of instruction? 
  • How does your shadowing data inform you on the academic needs of students of color? 
  • What do you plan to do now that you have seen specific student experiences in action? 

Note: the EL shadowing protocol that is described in this post is treated in-depth in a recent Corwin publication, Shadowing Multilingual Learners, 2nd edition

Written by

Candace Raskin, Ed. D., served as an educational leader in Minnesota public schools for 18 years as a superintendent; director of curriculum, instruction and assessment; middle school and elementary principal; and high-potential coordinator. Her research on developing racially conscious leadership has been recognized nationally and is published in numerous scholarly journals. She currently provides leadership and teaches in the administrative licensure graduate program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Twin Cities location. She also teaches doctoral courses and advises doctoral students as a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership. She is the co-founder and facilitator of the Institute for Courageous Principal Leadership.

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