Shadowing a Student – Lessons Learned

I’m currently teaching at a university in the midwest where I’ve been a postdoc for over two years, but this is my first semester as an instructor. Though I’ve had experience teaching before, it was an upper level course with students self-selected for an interest in science. Or, I was a teaching assistant or tutor for intro level astronomy, never really getting to know any one of the hundreds of students well enough. This semester, I’m teaching science to pre-service teachers, some of whom already have other jobs and/or families in addition to their schoolwork. This is new territory for me, so I’ve tried to be aware of their needs, especially when those needs are not obvious to me. But I know there is a lot that I’m missing.

My friend Dawn shared the following story with me after I had confided some of my worries to her. It’s the reflection of a teacher who shadowed her high school students for two days to get an insight into life on their side of the classroom. She realized several key things that made her wish she could go back and redo the last 14 years of teaching. Mainly, she discovered that sitting all day is exhausting, passively listening all day is demoralizing, and you feel like a bit of a nuisance when sarcasm is directed your way.

The first two underscore some of the weaknesses of traditional lecture and emphasize why there’s been such a push towards active learning environments. Sitting all day and just listening is not the most conducive method for learning, at least for most of us. Yet, we tend to teach the way that we were taught, and it’s not until being put back into that situation that many of us realize, wow this sucks. The teacher suggests mini-assessments throughout the class and hands-on activities to get students moving, but these are only two of a whole suite of methods available (though they are two of my favorite.) Another popular technique that works in a large range of classroom sizes is “Think-Pair-Share” where students are paired off to discuss a topic then report back to  a class-wide discussion. I like to include written exercises as well, which gives some of the quieter students a chance to flesh out their thoughts before discussion, and provides an extra method of assessment and class participation.

"Shadows" by Atilla Kefeli on Flickr, CC-BY-ND 2.0

“Shadows” by Atilla Kefeli on Flickr, CC-BY-ND 2.0

The third point in the teacher’s article goes a bit deeper. She notes the occasional use of sarcasm and snark by the teachers and how this can have a negative effect on students. High school, as far as I remember, is a sea of snark and attitude, and teachers probably need to keep a thick skin on in order to survive in the first place. That’s understandable, however, the teacher notes that sarcasm and snark could add to anxiety of an already stressed out student or further aggravate a fidgety student that has been sitting and listening (or trying to) all day. An enormous amount of patience is needed to cope with the daily struggles of teaching without letting the snark out, and even then I’m sure it’ll find its way to the surface.

It’s easy to roll your eyes and complain about “students these days,” and there are surely places where you have to put your foot down to not be taken advantage of. But I was incredibly heartened by this story of empathy from one veteran high school teacher. I probably can’t shadow my students, especially throughout their whole, complex lives. But it helps to keep an open mind and to treat your students as individuals, and not as a template.

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Nicole is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

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