Teaching empathy is one of the most important jobs we have in schools. It is pretty easy to discuss the need for being empathetic but in the midst of a busy day it can be hard to "practice what we preach" to our students. In order to strengthen our school community, we launched a program at Nido de Aguilas called, "Walk in my Shoes." I was inspired by the Shadow a Student for a Day Challenge as well as some empathy building experiences I had during my leadership training at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education where we shadowed different people in different roles to better understand the organization.
Nido de Aguilas is a large school of 1800 students and 400 faculty, staff, and support staff. We know the inner workings of our own job and department well but with everything that goes on in our complex organization it can be hard to understand how everyone's work fits together. When things don't go the way we want them to, it is easy to make assumptions that "other people" aren't doing their part. We often make comments like, "That teacher always sends students late," or "My school leader takes such a long time to respond to my emails," or "I put in a request for this a week ago and nothing has happened," or "the little ones are so cute, it must be so easy to play with them all day." If we are honest with ourselves, we know we make assumptions about what other people's jobs are like within our school. However, after our first "Walk in my shoes" event of the year, we quickly learned that the assumptions we hold can be shattered!
Here's what happened: First, I sent out an email to all faculty and staff introducing the event. The email had a sign up link. Once the first cohort was established I began organizing. I sent out emails to each division/department requesting volunteers. I wanted to seek out people who would be excited to have someone shadow them. Once the cohort and the volunteers were established, we were set! I held a pre-meeting that lasted for 20 minutes the afternoon before the event. I asked the cohort to generate a personal learning goal for this experience, asked them to think about some questions or challenges they were curious to explore by walking in someone else's shoes, and finally I asked them to jot down some of the assumptions they currently held about the role of the person they were going to observe. It is important to recognize our assumptions so we can try and set aside our own biases when observing. This process allows us to be truly present and open when "walking in a colleague's shoes." The final step during the pre-meeting was to send an email to the person that was going to be observed. I wanted each person to make a personal connection before observing as well as coordinate final logistics for the shadowing experience.
On the day of our event everyone found their "person" and observed what their work life was like for an hour. I would have loved to let the group spend the entire day shadowing, but logistically we could not provide enough coverage for the number of people participating. However, an hour seemed to be just enough time to gain some powerful insights. We all met to debrief the experience together. Here are some of comments people shared:
I was surprised how a school leader's schedule can change so quickly at the last minute.
The connection the Spanish teacher had with her students was magical! Her class was so welcoming for the students and for me!
I forgot how young kindergarten children are! We had to help them take off their hats, boots, and coats.
I was impressed with how much organization it takes to run the schedule for the theater!
I was struck by how a school leader has to go from a situation where they have to be so present with parents to getting some logistical things done like approving intranet orders.
I was surprised by how busy the library can get with classes coming and going at the same time.
I was impressed by how engaged the middle school students were in their lesson. I could tell the teacher put a lot thought into the planning.
I loved being in Mr. Fernando's art class with the EYS students. Being in his classroom was so different than what I do everyday in my office.
I was so impressed by how much Spanish the ES students were speaking in their Spanish as a Second Language class!
I ended up literally walking in the shoes of High School Teacher. It was Spirit Week this week and the kids were really energetic. I ended up having to help out. It was crazy, but in the end, everything got done that needed to get done!
Not only did we build empathy for the person who's shoes we walked in, we also learned about the experiences of our colleagues which helped to build empathy for many other roles that people have in our school. Because our school is so big, it was really nice to have a conversation with people coming form so many different perspectives. Our first cohort of "Walk in my Shoes" included: Two ES Spanish teachers, an ES support teacher, HR Director, HS Music Teacher, HS Teacher, 3 ES EAL teachers, and our PC Administrator. We were able to learn more about the following roles in our school: EYS art teacher, 2 EYS/ES Spanish Teachers, SSL Teacher, ES Principal, ES Assistant Principal, ES Librarians, Theater Staff, MS Teacher, and HS Teacher. We ended our debrief by writing thank you notes to the people who were observed.
Overall, our first event was a success but we did encounter several challenges. Some people had a hard time tracking down the person they were supposed to shadow and we had some challenges with sub coverage but that is also our daily reality when working in schools! I learned a few lessons from this experience that will help us during our next event. First, I think we need to meet earlier in the week to ensure there is clear communication (and enough time to communicate) regarding the logistics for the Walk in my Shoes Event. A second change for our next event will be to ask the person who wants to walk in someone else's shoes to generate a few questions that they want to learn from the person they are shadowing and have a short conversation with that person prior to the event. I am sure with each event, I will learn more about how to make this experience as powerful as possible for the participants. If you are interested in learning more or using some of my materials, send me an email. I am happy to share!