Let Compassion Lead: Shadow a Student
“…. More fundamental to the clinical endeavor than scientific knowledge and research was the clinician’s ability to have the kind of understanding of the plight of patient and family that made appropriate caring and compassionate actions possible. But how do we instill such understanding in the prospective physician?”
One of my mentors, Elliot Washor, recently shared this quote from Seymour Sarason’s book, Caring and Compassion in Clinical Practice: Issues in the Selection, Training and Behavior of Helping Professionals. Elliot went on to point out: “It is not a difficult switch to ask the same question of principals and teachers.”
Transforming our nation’s schools so that they honor all young people’s brilliance and prepare all students for fulfilling lives is complex work to which many of us have dedicated our lives. While much must be changed (policies, facilities, assessments, etc.), ultimately schools are run by people for people. Most of us working in education are attracted to the work from a place of compassion for others. Too often, the everyday distractions of the mechanisms of schooling bog us down and, if we are not careful, this can distract us and create distance between us and the lived realities of our students. So how might educators connect even more deeply with the students who brought us to and keep us in this work? How might we get new perspectives and surface opportunities for the transformative work that we hope to do?
For the last three years, our K12 Lab at the Stanford d.school has led an annual Shadow a Student Challenge to help adults in the education system develop more nuanced understandings of their students’ experiences. This year, the challenge will take place from February 19th to March 2nd. The challenge is simple: Spend one full day following a student through their experiences at school.
Time and again, educators who participate report being surprised by what they see and experience saying things like, “No one talked directly to [the student] all day.” and “I was so hungry by lunchtime, but there wasn’t enough time to get food and eat!” Through these realizations, educators gain new perspectives on so many aspects of what our students are dealing with daily—from learning to loneliness to lunch. These perspectives—and the conversations we have about them with students and colleagues—can become seeds of important new questions about our work and springboards to actions that ultimately transform our students’ experiences.
Understanding the realities of students is complex and nuanced—especially as we work across differences in age, race, gender identity, learning styles, and other lived experiences. Just as we cannot see gravity, but can come to understand it by studying the way we move on earth and the way stars sit in the sky, there is much that affects our students that we may not be able to see overtly, but that we can come to understand better through observation and experience.
“Everything that we see in life is something of a shadow cast by that which we do not see,” Martin Luther King, Jr. preaches in his sermon, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” Please join us in spending one full day stepping into our students’ shadows, so that we all might better see and better serve them.
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