The Student Shadow protocol offers a structured approach for educators to gain insight into the everyday experiences of the students they serve.


Prep: Setting a Focus & Selecting a Student

  • Have a conversation with your team about what you all hope to learn from the student shadow activity.
  • Choose a student who offers a window into the equity challenge you are considering taking on. For example, if your organization or school has identified Latino males as a group that is underserved by your model, consider shadowing a Latino male student to get firsthand perspective on his experiences in school.
  • Choose a student whose experiences are likely to be typical or representative in an important way. In the example above, for instance, you might choose a Latino male student whose course schedule most closely fits a typical Latino male’s schedule in the school you are visiting.

During the Shadow

  • At the start of the day, introduce yourself to the students and explain what you are doing and why.
  • Accompany your student to all of their classes throughout the school day and immerse yourself in the student experience.
  • Use the observation notes to capture what you see happening while during the shadow. Some example questions you may want to answer in your observation notes could include what is your student doing, when is your student most/least engaged, or what do you notice about when your student seems most/least motivated.

Shadowing Guidance

  • Be respectful of the students, teachers, and school community that you are visiting. Dress and behave professionally.
  • Approach shadowing and observing with an open and curious mind. Avoid generalizations, judgements, and evaluations
  • Focus your attention on the student’s experience. Avoid the temptation to describe the whole classroom; note the teacher’s behavior only as it relates to your student.
    • The purpose of the shadowing experience is to immerse yourself in a single student’s experience.
    • Capturing the overall environment of a given classroom is an assignment for another day.
  • Make an effort to be as unobtrusive as possible; do not interrupt or otherwise disrupt classes
  • Thank teachers – and your student – for allowing you to share their day Relax and allow yourself to observe your own mood and feelings as well as your student’s


  • After the shadowing activity, complete the accompanying individual reflection questions here in slides 7-10 of the Student Shadow Kit
  • Meet with your team (in person or virtually) to share experiences and reflections using a structured discussion protocol, which can be accessed here in the Team Reflection Protocol.
  • Prior to beginning this conversation, please nominate a member of your team to take notes. These notes should be the basis for the team’s written response to the Core Team Reflection Protocol.

Time Required


Required Materials

Materials: Observation worksheets, a notebook, and a pen Observation and Reflections worksheet: Student Shadow Kit

Preconditions for Success

None! The intention of this exercise is to be a baseline step for understanding what is happening for students in your school.

Some common challenges include:

  • Time - having dedicated time to follow student for full day. Time to reflect
  • Keeping role as an observer - critiques of practices, routines, etc come later during the reflection process.
  • Challenge in observing and documenting at the same time: Review all day’s materials (reflection questions, observation topics, etc) ahead of time to be able to be a more effective shadower.
  • Do not blame the students
  • Moving to problem solving without adequate or meaningful reflection

Connection to Equity

Developmental experiences such as Student Shadowing combine elements of action and reflection in an intentionally constructed learning opportunity. Student Shadowing creates an opportunity for educators and other participants to engage in experiential learning that can yield deeper insights into their own work and to gather more information about how students’ daily experience of school might contribute to inequitable outcomes. Through participating in this Student Shadowing activity, and then reflecting on this activity individually and collectively, participants can build empathy for the students’ experiences and make meaning with their colleagues. Empathy experiences help us challenge our own assumptions about others’ experiences and break the isolation that often prevents insights into complex problems.

Evidence of Effectiveness

Below are excerpts from some of the reflections that we gathered from organizations who used Student Shadowing to better understand particular equity challenges they had identified in their work.

Organization 1:

“There was a narrative that seemed to be forming around the need to better understand what is happening with boys of color in schools. Although it was fruitful to talk about our shadowing with others in the network, we think it would have been helpful to share our shadowing assignment with our team prior to sharing out to the network. We found that in the shadowing of these students they generally get met with underestimation from their teachers and even their peers. This underestimation is often masked as ‘equitable’ practices assuming that these boys of color need to get less pressure to succeed. There is a clear trend that ‘equity’ can be dangerously in opposition to rigor.”

Organization 2:

“[Our organization] has always assumed a safe, supportive and predictable teaching and learning environment to be a prerequisite for the effective instruction of skills, mindsets and academics. What [we] observed, however, was that academic time/instruction was underutilized by all three schools regardless of their number of years in partnership with [our organization] and/or the effectiveness of their environmental supports. [One member of our staff] noted the following observation: ‘despite clear signs that our systems and services were in place (in his specific shadowing experience), I did not observe a child (that he shadowed) or classroom leveraging academic instruction time.’ He went on to describe how a teacher hugged each student individually prior to entering the classroom, yet, inversely, the same teacher was also observed to cut students off during otherwise valuable discussion time, encouraging them to listen instead of to think. [Our organization] does not support models that focus so much on routines and procedures that students are not supported to learn and thrive; [Our organization] seeks to create classrooms where effective teaching, learning and healthy development are possible. This experience ultimately showed [our organization] that academic capacity would need to be more intentionally prioritized alongside social, emotional, behavioral and cognitive development to ensure its schools were adequately supporting the full needs of students and that they were reaping the full benefits of academic instruction.”

Organization 3:

“Student Shadowing was a valuable experience that greatly informed [our organization’s] equity work. Focusing explicitly on one student made our core team recognize how easy it can be for some of our students to hide or opt out of instruction. We might not have seen this if we only focused on teacher moves rather than the student experience. The students we shadowed seemed quite capable of ‘doing school,’ which stands somewhat in contrast to the ways we talk about student vulnerability. The students demonstrated a lot of intellectual curiosity despite their mediocre performance in 8th grade. We left the Student Shadowing experience with more questions for the equity work:- What structures and/or procedures promote black young men to become more engaged in classroom/intellectual work (i.e. grouping black young men together, strategies of competition, etc.)? - How do black young men perceive assessment and how do they experience taking risk to show what they know and what they are able to do? - Is a lack of engagement in class discourse a matter of interest or a strategy (intentional choice)? If a strategy, what success are they looking for (i.e. not taking a risk that results in lack of success, peer perception/pressure)? - Is the lack of engagement (perceived by teachers) in class discourse acceptable if teachers can measure student mastery using other forms of assessment? What are potential costs?

Student Shadowing confirmed our thinking that relationships – between teachers and students and among students – are critical for student success. We did see some evidence of good relationships, but they were not always accompanied by challenging instruction. We need to find ways to help schools support teachers so they can build strong learning partnerships with students. Relationships are extremely important if we want students to take risks – especially for African-American males, given all of the ways in which they, and their communities more broadly, have been taught over and over that they cannot trust the adults in society’s institutions to do what is right for them. The need for strong teacher-student relationships was a key finding in Dr. Ron Ferguson’s work.”

Associated Measures


Preferred Citation

Student Shadow Kit developed by UChicago Consortium on School Research using FYAS developmental experience lens.