Written by Julia Carlson, Principal of Central High School in Providence, Rhode Island
As a building principal, my day tends to look like a Seurat painting when standing only inches away. A thousand dots consisting of tasks, interactions and events that stand alone until you step back and see the whole painting.
For the past ten years I have focused on all these individual dots: improving graduation rates, attendance, curriculum, culture, climate, and all the other things that keep principals like me awake at night and energized all day. I have operated within my own perspective and have always sought collaboration and feedback from teachers, students and families in an effort to bring about positive change. However, I realized after just one day with 12th grader Jason Ramos that in focusing on each of these dots, I was never really seeing the whole painting.
I was recently accepted into a program offered by RIDE called School Retool. One of the tasks asked of each leader was that we participate in the International #shadowastudent Project. I accepted the challenge and set off to find a student. I walked into the Senior Lounge one Tuesday to ask if any student would be interested in me shadowing them for one school day. I was surprised that so many students jumped at the opportunity and was even more intrigued when Jason said he wanted me to shadow him. Jason and I met at the beginning of the year in a contentious way. I had taken his cell phone away due to a school policy and he was not pleased. I had sort of assumed that Jason was a difficult kid who didn’t like authority and rules. So when he asked for me to shadow him I thought this might be a way to connect with him and to change his way of thinking. We scheduled our day and put it on the calendar.
Wednesday came quickly and Jason and I planned to meet at the Broad Street bus stop. It was freezing outside and I had to walk through the middle of the street as the crosswalks were blocked with snow. I was worrying about my shoes when I heard my name. I looked up to see Jason walking towards me with a huge smile. We immediately and comfortably fell right into conversation. Jason pulled out a large envelope and told me he had just received news that he had been accepted to URI through the Talent Development program. I was ecstatic for him and told him so. I was shocked that our conversation was so easy, like we had been friendly for years. There was no hesitation or discomfort in his mannerisms, only joy and happiness.
We headed into the school and down to the lunchroom. Jason told me he hoped his friends were there and that breakfast was still being served. I confessed I had a nightmare about being a new student and feeling alone. Jason told me he felt that way often as well. We found his friends and I was surprised how he and his friends talked sports and girls with me like I hung out with them every morning. Jason’s friends asked if I was really going with him to all his classes and I told them I was. Their response? “That’s cool.”
The bell rang and we were off to AP Environmental Science. The next five hours were the most enjoyable I have had in my 3 ½ years at Central. I moved from AP Environment to Advanced Math and from there to British Literature. I had previously felt that I would have an impact on Jason but in reality it was he who was impacting my thinking. As I stepped out of my principal role and into that of a student, I was able to immerse myself into each class and truly take part in discussion and learning. The whole time I felt the support of Jason who made me laugh freely, supported my learning in mathematics, and included my thoughts when analyzing text in British Literature.
My #shadowastudent was a game changer for me because I finally got to see my policies in action through the lens of a student. First, a large part of my job is observing and evaluating teaching and learning. I have my indicators in which I script discussion and observation to align to performance levels. This process has prevented me from seeing the learning process in a way that best meets students’ needs. I saw that the three teachers who taught each of Jason’s classes knew they could relax, as I was not there for them. They were able to take risks and “fail forward” instead of attempting to hit all the indicators on the evaluation rubric. They allowed students to make mistakes and then figure out how to fix them, all while high-level learning was observed.
Second, I saw that a few of my own policies are simply not working. After second period I needed to use the bathroom. I ran from one room to the next to leave my belongings. I went to the nearest bathroom and saw a huge line of ladies. With only three minutes left I decided to break character and use the faculty restroom. As I walked towards third period, the bell rang. I have a no pass policy at Central High School. I put this policy in place because I thought it would create a safe and secure environment. What I realized through this process was that the students who I have met with about this issue have been right all along. There is no time between classes to use the facilities. In addition, when you move between floors, the halls are packed with students and staff and making it from the basement to the 3rd floor is a struggle. I realize now that I have been punishing the majority of our students because of a few who didn’t make good choices.
I was exhausted once lunch arrived. I see that there is very limited time for casual discussion. Students are highly engaged from the first bell till the end of the day. A short 20-minute lunch is the only time for kids to be kids. I am not sure how to incorporate more down time but I will be pulling students together to try to find a solution.
Lunch came and Jason and I stood in a long line for our nachos. Jason decided on the fruit while I took my plate and we headed for the senior lounge. It felt like five minutes passed and I was on my second bite and the bell rang. We were just starting a conversation about college acceptance letters when we gave our hugs and I said goodbye to Jason and 20 others who leave during 4th block to take two courses at CCRI. As they left, students asked if I would shadow them next. I couldn’t stop smiling. This experience has changed me for the better as a person and a principal.
A few weeks later and I am still smiling. I have discussed my findings and new perspectives with our teacher leaders and instructional team. I have already put on the table changes to our no pass policy, how to rethink evaluations, and the importance of down time. I was delighted that our teachers seemed to already know these “secrets” that had finally been whispered to me and that they were more than eager to discuss how we run evaluations. I feel that this one-day has made me a better person and a better leader.
My next #shadowastudent day is already on the calendar and will happen this week. This time I will be with a 9th grade student. I have also asked my entire administrative team to do the same. I don’t want this to be a one shot event; instead, I want to challenge myself to consider different perspectives often.
As for Jason, I look forward to handing him his high school diploma in a few months. I look forward to hearing how college at URI is going and reminding myself that it wasn’t me who changed his way of thinking but he who changed mine.