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Confessions of a High-School Photography Teacher: My First Year

BY ALLISON CARROLL

[Editor’s note: This report first appeared in 2009 at our companion site, Teaching Photography, in its first incarnation as Teachingphoto.com. Because that site devotes itself primarily to post-secondary photo education, we’ve replicated it here. — A. D. Coleman]

Allison Carroll

Allison Carroll

I was two years out of the Art Institute of Boston, studying photography. I had four years under my belt of gainful employment as a studio manager for a fine-art photographer, and three summers of teaching photography to pre-college high school kids. I thought this made me fairly well equipped when I signed a contract to become a part-time faculty member of the Art Department at St. Sebastian’s School in Needham, MA.

Luckily for me, the headmaster shared my opinion. To be truthful, the knowledge department did not concern me. I had always been one of the most technically skilled students in my photo classes, and I know my art history well. I can even go on and on about how Abe Morrell makes his camera obscura pictures. The challenge, however, and what I feared the most, was the actual act of teaching—in particular, teaching at a private, all-male Catholic high school.

Daniel Halloran, "After Arno"

Daniel Halloran, “After Arno”

Teaching at an all-male school comes with its very own set of challenges. Most of my students are driven, goal-oriented, and focused. They are polite, being bound by an Honor Code within the walls of the school. They are also outspoken, opinionated, and more often than not, they act like the teenage boys they are. My goal was to get them to realize that photography is actually a very interesting and important subject—and, frankly, to get them to take me seriously.

Did I mention that when I started, I was twenty-four years old? And no one would mistake me for Kobe Bryant. Most of my students tower over me. I’ve taken to wearing two-inch high heels just to come close. At the first meet-and-greet with the parents, I was asked more than once if I was a sister of one of the students. This was a huge hurdle to overcome. Teenage boys are not used to seeing young women as authority figures.

"Highway," © Jack McAvoy

“Highway,” © Jack McAvoy

I’ve learned many things along the way, and I’d like to share them here in the hopes that other young teachers can glean something from my experience. I’ve decided to concentrate on five points I think are most important.

#1 Remember High School? Yes, I know; I tried to block it out, too. But remembering what it was like to be a high school student has really helped me understand my students. I’ve been asking myself things like, what was important to me when I was 16? Or, how much time did I have to commit to my artwork when I was in 11th grade? Like many of us, I remember college fondly, and often find myself defaulting to my work habits in college, when I had the time to shoot six rolls of film a week, and spend hours in the darkroom. But in high school, you just can’t do that—and frankly, very few students will want to work that hard. So I have curbed my assignments to fit into their schedules. Quality over quantity, I suppose. I’d rather give students a bit less work, and have them complete all of it, than give them a huge assignment and only receive half back. So I cut down on work time, and make it up in creative project ideas, figuring that inspired and challenged students are more likely to work hard to accomplish their goals.

Brian Walker, untitled

Brian Walker, untitled

#2 Respect Your Students. As a teenager, I never wanted to be underestimated. I had all these ideas, and I wanted to face the world head-on with them. It seems many teenagers feel this way—full of potential energy that, if channeled in the proper way, can have amazing results. So I try hard not to underestimate my students. If they feel I expect great things from them, they’re more likely to fulfill them—and themselves.

#3 Be Yourself. A lot of people told me at the start of my first year that I had to start out mean—to scare them into submission. “Give ‘em detention for looking at you wrong!” “Kick him out if you don’t like his tie!” This is some of the advice I was given.

Matthew Maskell, untitled

Matthew Maskell, untitled

I am not a mean person by nature, so it’s actually difficult for me to even try to be mean. It’s a bit of a character flaw. Perhaps I could have been a little harder on some of my students last year, but I have learned from that—and well, I’ve decided I’m still going to be nice. Students see right through dishonest teachers—and they will return the favor in spades. If you are tough person, then you should be a tough teacher; and if you aren’t tough, then you shouldn’t try to be. I discovered I can be myself, and the students really respond; in fact, it allows them to be themselves, and creates a much safer atmosphere for them to make their art in.

Jack McAvoy, "Light"

Jack McAvoy, “Light”

#4 Don’t Them Get Away With Stuff. Often, students of this age are looking for the limits of things. They want to know how far they can get before they are reeled back in. It’s the old “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.” In my first year teaching, I was too lax. This year, my main goal has been to make the rules and assignments very clear, and to adhere to them strictly. They must be in proper dress code all the time. They must bring in the assigned work on time or they will receive a late mark. They will not use words or expressions I have banned from class. And they will get sent to the office if these rules are broken. This has really helped and improved behavior markedly. Show weakness and things will spiral out of control; uphold the rules and limits will be observed.

Michael Ewing, untitled

Michael Ewing, untitled

#5 Be Present and Reliable.High school students are overcommitted; they have a lot going on. There are extracurricular activities, outside music lessons, sports, jobs, and on and on. They also may need extra help in school or extra time to finish work. My students are always very appreciative when I can stay after, to let them work in the darkroom, or when I do small things, like bring in books they are interested in looking at. If you can show them that they are important to you, and that you can be around for them, they feel appreciated and they want to work for you. I’ve also found that the students really want to rely on you as their teacher. They seem almost offended on days when I have to miss school. They depend on me to be there when I say I’ll be there, to return a test when I say I’ll return a test, and label their work with their names when I hang it up. I have worked very hard this year to me more reliable.

Daniel Halloran, "Mazie"

Daniel Halloran, “Mazie”

#6 The Best Teaching Advice That Anyone Ever Told Me. It was to never, ever forget that you are the adult with a college degree (sometimes 2), and they are the teenagers. They are teenagers, who often know almost nothing on your subject when they enter the classroom. If you can harness this confidence in yourself, and display it to your students, you will more than likely succeed.

Finally, after my second year teaching at St. Sebastian’s, we are all about ready to go on vacation. Maybe next year I’ll have a new set of rules.

Above you see some examples of work by my students. Here’s some by me:

Allison Carroll, "Tent, Martha's Vineyard," 2008

Allison Carroll, “Tent, Martha’s Vineyard,” 2008

Allison Carroll, "Places of Potential Series"

Allison Carroll, “Places of Potential Series”

Allison Carroll, "Places of Potential Series"

Allison Carroll, “Places of Potential Series”

Allison Carroll graduated in 2005 from the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University with a BFA in photography. She currently works as a fine-art photography studio manager and as a teacher at St. Sebastian’s School. She enjoys live music in dark bars and taking pictures of grass, rocks, and water. To contact Allison by email, click here. To see more of her work visit her blog at www.smallsquarepictures.blogspot.com.