Learning to Teach

This fall will mark the start of my fourth year teaching here in Georgia. Including my time in Syracuse, I’ve been in front of students for five and a half years now – which is exactly half as much time as I spent as a “professional.” That’s a little weird.

The teaching thing just sort of happened. Towards the end of 2002, everything at my job was sort of falling apart – a lot of stress, a lot of hours and a boss who I just couldn’t get along with anymore. Leaving, abruptly, I decided to go back to school and finish the undergraduate degree I had started in 1988. (Yeah, the secret’s out – I was a college drop out.) I figured four months of school, five classes, and I’d head back into newspapers with a clearer vision and a cleared head.

Once I’d made the decision, I contacted my mentor and friend to tell him I was coming back. He immediately asked me to co-teach a class with him. Then he offered to let me hang around and get a master’s degree if I agreed to continue teaching … and so I became a teacher. I wish there was more soul-searching involved with the story, but there really isn’t. As with so many other things, it just happened.

There are some things I know well enough to teach at a high level. My introductory students get a strong foundation in the technical side of photography and the philosophical reasoning behind photojournalism. But the one area that I want to get better at is the coaching side, the psychological side of this. As a coach in a newsroom, I was good at it, one-on-one. In a classroom, sometimes I wonder if there isn’t more in the students to be drawn out, that I’m leaving behind a little bit. 

This is all coming out tonight because I was reading a short piece on David Alan Harvey’s photo workshops in American Photo. (Yeah, I’m behind …) In it, he talks about teaching …

But with (some) people you have to be a bit of a psychologist. You’ve got to get in their minds and see what makes them tick, then unlock their thoughts. You’ve got to figure out why they’re stuck where they are and how to get them to open up. It’s not really about teaching technique. Mostly it’s about helping students discover themselves, and therefore discover what it is they really want to do with their work.

For my first-semester students, it’s all about technique. You need to understand how it works to make it work. But for my advanced students, while they still need the technical stuff, they need more psychological work, too. And that’s where my emphasis is going to go this fall.

One Comment

  1. “In a classroom, sometimes I wonder if there isn’t more in the students to be drawn out, that I’m leaving behind a little bit.”

    I feel as though there is only so much you can do as an instructor in order to “draw out” that something more from your students. You lay the foundation, show your enthusiasm (in your own way), and the rest is up to the student. You can’t force enthusiasm. As a former student of yours, I think you did a lot (Petit Le Mans, spring workshops, shooting H.S. football, chicken crack!) to bring out that something special in (and outside) the classroom.

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