Trading Places: What Happens When Teachers Become Students for a Day

Five teachers at a Vermont independent high school face a day as students and live to tell about it.
Jan 1, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Here’s a New Year’s resolution for teachers: Trade places with your students.

That’s what happened early last year at Burr and Burton Academy, a Vermont independent high school. Five teachers switched places with their students to see school from their viewpoint. The result: They felt a lot more empathy for the kids.

The idea came from one of the school’s Tech Research classes. The students wanted to find out whether school schedules met the needs of students educationally and socially, how the student experience could be improved, and how the school schedule affected families.

Even the teachers were surprised by their discoveries.

Some said that they were simply nervous to embark on the project, while others rejoiced in the chance to walk in students’ shoes.

The teachers arrived at the same time the students normally did, which some teachers said was luxuriously late compared with their early mornings. Teachers who stayed up late doing their assigned reading or math homework for the next day were less enthusiastic.

“I spent two hours doing the AP Calc homework, did it completely wrong…. I think some of the enjoyment came from the novelty of the challenge,” Dave Mirceli, a social studies and psychology teacher, says in the student-made video about the project that was recently posted on the KQED website.

Teachers noticed everything from how uncomfortable the classroom chairs were to the short five minutes they had to get between classes. They also noted how boring some classes were and their inability to stay focused during the entire day.

“I would say as the day went on, it did get more challenging to stay focused,” Meg Kinney, assistant headmaster, says in the video.

Some teachers also believed a longer lunch was needed to break up the day so that students wouldn’t feel so stressed and frazzled by “wall-to-wall” activity.

Such projects as this one in Vermont are rare. Many schools have programs that allow teachers to trade places with other teachers or let students role-play as administrators. But having teachers experience school from a student's perspective should be more common, as it helps them understand the lives of their students better and assists administrators in making decisions.

Faye Hall, a teacher in New Hampshire, to whom I sent the video, was excited by the idea. She says it's critical for teachers to get a student's perspective and figure out how to incorporate their new insights into their classes.

"They focused more on physical comfort—how hard the chairs were, how heavy the backpacks are, how short the time between classes," she says. "These factors influence learning and attention. Teachers can adjust homework and instructional pacing to accommodate student comfort and engagement and learning. I used to sit in my students' seats after school to gain their perspective."

The teachers in Vermont seem to have enjoyed the experience. “I’ll do that again any day,” Mary Rita Manley, a math teacher at the school, says in the video. “I had such a good time.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.