The Shadow Knows

See your schools through the eyes of your students

Ryan Champeau​

Would you like a deeper understanding of the experience of being a student in your district schools? Shadowing your students for one day is one way of discovering how students experience learning in your district schools.

As a consultant with the Center for Secondary School Redesign and previously as a high school principal who initiated redesign of the school’s learning system, I continue to rely on student shadowing as an authentic look at how my schools are doing.

It is easy as a school leader to kick back in the safety of our adult space and build our own perceptions of how students experience learning in our schools. But the very cogent aspect of school can be captured from the firsthand view of the student. It’s not a walk-through or a classroom visit. It’s seeing what school is like for students, minute by minute and hour by hour.

Experiencing the student’s school day allows us to discover the subliminal cultural and academic underpinnings of the learning experience of our students. Immersing ourselves in the daily routine of our students yields insights into what is working and what is not—all from the view of the student.

We all want to make our schools more responsive for all of our students. How can we discover the students’ real world of school, and ultimately nurture productive learning for them?

The student perspective gained while shadowing promises us an authentic and empathetic perspective of the student’s school experience. Of course, it is not a panacea to fix everything that is wrong in our schools. It is only a departure point, a fertile promise to improve.

Experiencing school using this protocol gives us a visceral student perspective of the ethos of social veracity in a school. The Center for Secondary School Redesign created this protocol to help us uncover the often clandestine aspects of the student school experience. It peels back the academic strata of the school—revealing the deeper emotional, intellectual, and social aspects of learning—and, pragmatically, is relatively easy to accomplish.

Before we get into the particulars of this protocol, let’s first state what it is not: It is not an evaluation of any teacher, program, or other entity in the school. It is not intended in any manner to compromise the confidentiality of any student. It is solely intended to view school as a student experiences it. Put on your student shoes and let’s begin.


The individuals who will shadow students are teachers, administrators, school board members, and other staff members who will commit for a full day of shadowing. It will be followed by a group debrief to gain the most benefit from this protocol. A commitment to a full school day of shadowing is necessary without exception. This means following your assigned student for the entire school day. When the dismissal bell rings, the shadowing ends. 

I recommend a small group of perhaps a counselor, an administrator and a teacher or two be assigned to selecting students. Generating the deep insights this protocol is capable of requires that students selected for shadowing represent the populations in the school, ensuring a solid cross-section of all students. Depending on school size, I recommend no fewer than five diverse students be selected for shadowing.

The next step is to select the individuals who will shadow the students. This group should represent the school curriculum: core areas, career and technical education, special education, and so forth. 

The third step is to align the students who will be shadowed with the individuals assigned to follow them. For best results, align the people doing the shadowing to follow students who represent areas different than their own identification in the school. An example of this might be an AP teacher shadowing an at-risk or special education student. Diversity of the shadowing assignments is important here. 

Administrators, at least one from the school and one from the district office, are essential participants. An administrator’s participation adds credibility and helps deepen the administrator’s understanding regarding the ethos in the school, including informal communication streams among students and the relationships between students and teachers from a very authentic view.

Teachers are the most diverse group and it is essential that they represent as many teaching disciplines as possible. It is highly recommended that to assure the best yield of the protocol, teachers who are shadowing students need to be assigned to students whom they do not see in their classes. Moreover, I suggest that the administrators shadow a student whom they do not frequently encounter.


The school staff must be informed well in advance that the school is conducting the student shadowing protocol. They need to be assured that no preparation is necessary, and that the point of the protocol is to focus on students. In no manner is this to be regarded as an evaluation. The person who is shadowing a student must assume the role of a student.

Sit in the class as a student would and participate, reminding yourself that you are there as a student only. Allow other students in the class to take the lead in discussions and class activities. If others in the class yield to you as a staff member, remind them you are there simply to shadow a student throughout the day. Avoid any focus on yourself.

The people who are shadowing students need to set the tone, making the experience as transparent and nonthreatening as possible. It is even more important for the administrators who are shadowing students to keep the shadowing protocol as authentic and robust as possible. While much of this may seem obvious, a small misstep can undermine the intention of the protocol in the school.

The courtesy caveat is that students being shadowed must be volunteers and formal arrangements prior to the day of shadowing are made to allow participants to become acquainted with each other. For example, the day before the shadowing experience, all participants might gather for a detailed explanation of the protocol, in the context of a reception.

Implementing the protocol with a high degree of fidelity will yield the richest results. All members of the cohort are expected to take observation notes and formulate questions that will be used for follow-up conversation. Finally, a volunteer staff member is selected for organizing and leading the protocol implementation. Fidelity is assured with a few ‘ground rules’. First, it is essential that the people doing the shadowing follow their assigned student for the entire day. This means individuals doing the shadowing cannot return to their offices to read their email, answer phones, or perform any other routine tasks; the individuals doing the shadowing must eat lunch and follow other typical student school day routines alongside their assigned student, such as taking tests and participating in classroom events. 

Turning to the students being shadowed: Some students will prefer that you stay at a distance, which means you don’t need to be in close physical proximity, but you must follow the student’s schedule, attend classes, and participate in his/her routines. Some students will enjoy the fact that they can talk with you during the day and introduce you to their friends. In all cases, the student’s personal space and preference always is respected. The expectation of this relationship is best established at the protocol orientation meeting the day before the actual shadowing, when participants gather to become acquainted.


Shadowing a student lays the foundation for improving teaching, improving leadership, and improving student learning. Results of the shadowing will inform school improvement ranging from small tweaks to complete reorganization of the school. Regardless, shadowing renders a deep dive into the culture and student learning experiences in your schools from the students’ perspective. If you choose to implement this protocol, be ready to act on the insights discovered.

Ryan Champeau ( is an innovation school coach and mentor with the Center for Secondary School Redesign in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

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