Empathize Deeply With Your Students

Teacher Coach: Michael Schurr

By Elsa Fridman Randolph

Michael, who assisted in the creation of the Design Thinking for Educators toolkit, is a Teacher Coach on The Teachers Guild, where he will mentor and encourage community members as they dare to design their own solutions to education’s most pressing problems.

Teacher Designer: Michael Schurr

Michael Schurr is a 3rd grade co-teacher and the Leader of the Assistant Teacher Mentor Program at Riverdale Country School, a coed day school in Bronx, New York. Michael came to teaching from a place of deep empathy for his students, which was fostered in his own early school years.

“As a student in early elementary school, I struggled mightily with language acquisition skills. It was the few key teachers I had during the later years of elementary who fostered my love of learning, showing me that there is more than one way to learn content material. Because of my own struggles, I knew I would be a deeply thoughtful educator who makes sure that my students find ways to engage with the material that works for them.”

Q: What does it mean to be a teacher designer to you?

A: My greatest ah-ha moment around design thinking happened years ago when my assistant teacher at the time and I first ran a design challenge with our students around the physical space of our classroom. After going through design thinking workshops, it occurred to me that until you empathize with your end user — your students — how could you truly design a successful classroom experience? In trying to figure out how to encourage discovery within our classroom walls, our student interviews revealed that it was not the curriculum but the physical space that needed to be redesigned. The desks were old and because they were set up with an opening in the front, the students found it difficult to find specific folders, workbooks and other materials. The chairs were hard, uncomfortable and did not move easily. There was a lot of bulky furniture taking up space so that the students could not spread out comfortably for group work.

“For me, being a teacher designer is interviewing students about every aspect of their day at school to design a better learning experience for them.”

If we had never thought to interview our students, we would have created an entire new curriculum or bought new “stuff” that we thought would encourage discovery. As it turns out, it was all about comfort, accessibility and open space.

Our job should consist of designing experiences for our students from the moment they walk on campus until the second they leave.

The biggest shift I have noticed in my own practice is not just trying to design curriculum, but rather carefully listening to the wants and needs of my students.

Having a design mindset means to empathize deeply, to take risks, to learn from failures, and to constantly improve. It means questioning the status quo, and working with others for a shared, common goal.

The design thinking mindset is empowering, creative, and collaborative.

Q: What is a solution you’ve created using design thinking?

A: When we learned that the Perkins Building on our lower school campus was to be replaced with a new structure, we embraced this opportunity to design a common space that truly meets the needs of both our students and faculty. The collaboration, which took place with a cross section of faculty and administration, centered on creating impactful solutions to the challenge question: How might we re-imagine the library space to foster discovery for students in grades 3–5?

One of the interesting ideas to transform the library space from our design session was an Apple store style Genius bar for students. At any time, a member of the Learning Research Team and Support Services, tech department, and a librarian would be present to assist students in a myriad of ways. Students could receive additional support with core academics as well as the application of technology, and locating resources. The building is currently under construction and we are hopeful this is one of the many ideas from our design challenge that will find its way into the new space.

Connect with Michael on The Teachers Guild.