Being a Student for a Day by David Knuffke

Student Dave Day

student by Lemon Liu from the Noun Project

I am not a Superintendent. It seems like a very busy, challenging job. But it also seems like it has fun parts. One part that seems particularly fun is a structure that I’ve seen used both in my district and elsewhere, that we can call “Kid for a day.” Kid for a day is exactly what it sounds like: The Superintendent follows a student’s schedule for a day. That’s nifty. A few months ago, I realized that I could also be Kid for a day. So I did it.

I called my version “Student Dave Day.” Here’s how it works: On Student Dave Day, I follow a schedule of science and technology classes for 8 out of 9 periods of the school day (even Student Dave needs a lunch break). I participate in the classes that I visit as if I am a student. Because the point of Student Dave Day is to get as close to a student’s perspective of the classes I’m visiting as possible, I didn’t want to announce my schedule to my staff before the day. But I also didn’t want them to panic, so I made it very clear that my visits would be entirely non-evaluative, and I gave everyone a chance to request that I not visit their class during Student Dave Day. I also made it clear that if there were any materials that I needed to have with me so that I could fully participate in the day’s lesson (ex. homework), teachers should send it along so that I was a fully prepared student. No special treatment for Student Dave. After having to reschedule twice due to snow days, Student Dave Day went down last Thursday (at the HS) and Friday (at the MS). It was great.

Here are three major takeaways from Student Dave Day:

  1. Being a student is hard. Eight periods of participatory learning is exhausting. From my experience as a student, I had some remembrance of this, but there is nothing quite like actually trying to be a public school student to give you the sort of visceral reminder that I haven’t had since 1998. Asking kids to show up, focus on the material under consideration, answer questions, work in groups, and do all of the other things that a lesson entails eight times a day is a big ask. This is not me saying that the modern school regimen is unfairly difficult for kids. Learning is/should be the primary focus of American children’s lives. But what I am saying is that since we are asking so much from children, we should respect them enough to make sure that we are making the best use that we can of the time that we have with them.
  2. Relationship-building is not easy. Even though I was not participating in Student Dave Day lessons in any evaluative capacity, that doesn’t mean that I was able to turn off my pedagogy-sense. At this point in my life, I’m pretty primed to be able to offer ideas for any lesson that I am lucky enough to see, and these lessons were no different. Maybe it was because I was taking the student perspective as much as I could, but what I noticed during these visits was the relationships between teachers and students. Almost entirely, I was impressed by the ways in which my teachers were interacting with their students. I didn’t need Student Dave Day to know that my staff cares about the kids that they teach, but it was affirming to see it in action. At the same time, some interactions were less-than-optimal. Many of these interactions didn’t even involve the teacher whose class I was visiting. It was often something that I noticed in the hallway when a different staff member was interacting with a student. What’s most interesting to me is that I genuinely do not think that any of these sub-optimal interactions were deliberate on the part of the adult in the situation. Which isn’t surprising. There are almost no teachers in the world who actively seek to damage the relationship they have with students. Still, it was very easy to see how a particularly phrased corrective, or a sarcastic comment could be easily misinterpreted by a student to be an indicator that an adult does not care about her or him. I became aware of this when I was a teacher because I surveyed my students at the end of the year, but I don’t know that the majority of teachers understand how fragile the relationships they build with their students can be, and how easily they are damaged by a lack of consideration.
  3. Non-Evaluative Observations are different. One of my main hopes in implementing Student Dave Day was that it would allow me a chance to see a more relaxed version of my staff. I’m sure that you’ve figured out by now that I am a big fan of the teachers in my department. They are awesome, and I love spending time in their rooms, watching them teach kids. But when I became “the boss,” it didn’t take me long to notice that my presence in the room, particularly when doing an evaluative observation, caused them to stiffen up a bit, which is completely understandable. Student Dave Day gave me a chance to see my teachers teaching in a way that seemed more natural, a bit “looser” than what I get when I’m in the room recording what is happening. I liked that. It also gave me a chance to interact with students more than I might when I am focused on watching what they are doing. I liked that, too.

All of these are good notes for me, but I think they really all boil down to the following: As great as Student Dave Day was (and I definitely plan to make this an annual thing), and as useful the perspective that it gave me is for understanding what Science & Technology education looks like in our district, I shouldn’t need a formal event to walk into a lesson and start participating as if I were a student in the room. At this point in my Administrative life, it’s important for me to start finding new, useful ways to get perspective on what we do in our Departments. I’m glad I’ve found another one.

Have you done something similar? Maybe you’ve figured out other ways to see what’s happening in your district? In either case (or in any other case), drop me a line and let me know what you are doing that helps you see into the educational process.

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