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Undercover: How Does it Really Feel to be a High School Student?

For roughly seven hours each day your child disappears into the world of school. When they come home and you ask how their day was, if you’re lucky, you get a brief outline of highlights and lowlights. You hear about a particular teacher’s funny story or an argument with a friend at lunch. But what is your child’s day really like?

We think we know exactly what school is like. After all, we went to school! But the reality is, our experiences were a long time ago. Those memories have been coloured and distorted and edited. They aren’t very reliable. And things have changed.

Even teachers, who are there every day with children don’t have a particularly accurate understanding of the experience of their students. They see it all from the other side of the desk. Teachers are often very busy and they view school through the lens of an educator and adult. Teachers are often teachers because they loved school. They know that everybody doesn’t have the same experience as them, but it is hard to get inside the heads of all your students.

Recently I was part of a design thinking program. We were looking at education and its future. The focus of our study was innovation and how innovations could transform learning. In order to do that, it was important to first understand the experiences of those in the system. Central to designing education, is students.

One of my colleagues in this project was Ali Barker. She is a high school English teacher in a co-ed, Catholic school. She is passionate about her students, her subject area and education generally. In order to better understand the experiences of students she was challenged to shadow a student for a day. To make sure her understandings were authentic, she went through exactly the same routines and experiences as a Year 11 student. She even wore the uniform.

Ali is young and actually looks like a student, so it wasn’t surprising that both kids and teachers stopped noticing her as the day progressed. Her insights from that day were interesting. Some were surprising, some less so.

For the purposes of our project she necessarily focuses on the negatives of her school day. We acknowledge that there are many great aspects of daily school life. There are many great teachers, great lessons and engaged students. However, it doesn’t hurt for us to occasionally be reminded of the challenges students face.

So what did she learn? Watch and find out…Empathy is at the heart of relationships. It’s a skill we want to develop in our kids. If they can imagine what someone else experiences, then they will be kinder, more inclusive and more respectful. As parents and teachers how empathetic are we?

Often we feel as though our years of experience more than equip us to understand teenagers. I think perhaps that’s a mistake. We need a reality check every now and again. We don’t know what it is like to be a teenager in 2016. We can guess but we don’t know.

Maybe we should all challenge ourselves. We should be asking questions that lead to, “What is it like to be you?’  And then…be quiet. Just listen. Truly listening means just that; not giving advice, not solving the problems. Listen to understand; not to respond.


Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia. She has a Facebook page here.

In case you missed them, here are the ten main points:

1. Students have no control over their day. They are governed by bells and rules and constant movement. They are always part of a flow of traffic and it’s very restrictive and wearing.

2. The role of teachers is incredibly important. They influence everything in the room from energy levels to motivation to engagement. It is a lot of power. It’s a lot of opportunity…And it’s also a huge amount of pressure for an individual.

3. School can be very boring. Teachers try very hard to present interesting, engaging work, but they aren’t always successful.

4. Students really need to feel liked. Because students are a big group that need to be managed, teachers sometimes pre-empt poor behaviour and students feel that.

5. As a student you don’t necessarily see your friends very much. We assume they ‘hang out with their mates’ all day. That isn’t the case. Sometimes they rarely see the people whom they know like them and care about them. This makes it all the more important for them to feel liked by their teachers.

6. The whole day is following instructions and moving from one place to another. When kids go from one subject to another they have to make big mind shifts and adjust to different teacher personalities and expectation as well as the demands of different subjects.

7. The goals of each lesson and the links to real life are not always clear. Students are not necessarily aware of how important different skills and knowledge are to them.

8. Asking permission to go to the toilet feels really undignified. From a teacher’s perspective this is about duty of care and accountability, but for a child, particularly a teenager it is just embarrassing and uncomfortable, especially if a teacher questions the importance of said toilet trip.

9. Kids are much more productive than expected. Most kids are getting their work done and try hard to please teachers.

10. Kids have no sanctuary in a school. Teachers withdraw to offices and kids don’t have that. We need to find places in schools that belong to kids while still keeping them safe and supervised. Common rooms are important.

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