Field Notes
Shadow a Student Challenge

The Shadow a Student Challenge is a crash course in empathy that starts with seeing school through a student's eyes. It helps school leaders find meaningful opportunities to improve the experience for students, and take insight-driven action to create change at their schools.

Click to see all the educators taking part in the 2017 Shadow a Student Challenge

Click to see all the educators taking part in the 2017 Shadow a Student Challenge

Participants in this campaign receive step-by-step instructions, resources and tools to support their learnings, and are part of an international network of like-minded educators and school leaders dedicated to making school a better experience for all students.

Karen Ritter, an assistant principal at a high school just outside of Chicago, decided to shadow 9th grader Alan Garcia, who came to her asking to be switched out of remedial classes.

Educator Insights

As the network of school leaders finish their shadow day, they capture their observations using notes, photographs, and social media. We collected and analyzed their observations into three key insights:

  • Students have strong peer-to-peer relationships that are underutilized and underappreciated by adults.
  • Students lack freedom to make decisions about where and how they move throughout the day. 
  • Students are not seeing connections across their subjects or to the real world.
get on the bus

Shadows in Action

Marjorie Mills Public School principal Chris Martin took the Shadow a Student Challenge in 2016 and returned to the Challenge again in 2017. While he was impressed by the fantastic work of his teachers, when recess came around he realized how having outdoor recess in the frigid Ontario winters proved grueling for his students or staff. After his Shadow Day, he and his team took action and split the 30 minute afternoon recess to 10 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon. They also opened up the computer lab, which has become popular hot spot for students who want to have more agency over where they spend their free time. Inspired by the results, Chris and his team will be trying different hacks to make school better for their students.


Insight to Action

We created a series of action steps to assist school leaders in getting the most of their Shadow experience. These steps help you pick a suitable student to shadow and translate your observations into experiments for improvement we call hacks.


  • Create learning goals for your Shadow Day, choose a student, and start questioning your assumptions about school.


  • Spend the entire day shadowing your student, capturing your observations along the way.


  • Reflect on your observations, question them, and draw connections to opportunities for action.


  • Based on your Shadow Day findings, create a hack, a small experiment for making changes at your school.
Seeing where students are coming from is critical and without that understanding you might be coming down on a student that has a life that you don’t understand.”
— Chris Martin, Principal Marjorie Mills P.S.

From Shadow to Hack

An elementary school principal in Texas, Jofee participated in the Shadow a Student Challenge in 2016. She always felt connected to her students, but through her Shadow experience Jofee came to a new realization about her role as a principal: she needed to be more accessible. So after completing her Shadow, Jofee grabbed her computer, phone, and a notebook and set up a makeshift desk in the hallway by the front door. Her new office was included a suggestion box for students, parents, and staff to share ideas for improving the school. After one day of this hack, she found she had her pulse on what was really going on at her school, and now has a regular practice of unwalling her office to ensure she’s connecting with her students and school community.



Jofee Cover Image 2 (2).jpg
Overall, I should be more accessible. I’m there but my presence needs to be more felt.
— Jofee Tremain


The Shadow a Student Challenge is a collaboration between the Stanford’s K12 Lab Network and IDEO, with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Team Members

Devon Young

Jennifer Goldstein 

Peter Worth

Susie Wise