A question I often ask of those who begin to question me on how you get into teaching photography. I am no expert on the subject but I do have some experience teaching the medium within Higher Education and therefore I am happy to help the best I can.
I previously wrote an article dealing with the expectations of institutions to offer some insight into the process of applying for such a position (https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2016/04/20/im-a-photographer-let-me-in-opening-the-door-to-photo-education/). This article explained some of the expectation and thinking behind the appointment of a lecturer as a member of staff, but there are additional expectations that I feel need discussing.
The idea of teaching photography based upon your knowledge and experience with the medium makes sense. You can pass on what you know and have spent years practicing onto young minds (and sometimes not such young minds) based on your personal experience. This is invaluable insight.
You will have been engaged with the subject you are passionate about for some years, you will know your subject, have favourite photographers, beloved photo books, invested in your equipment, experienced highs and lows, worked for clients, been commissioned, maybe won some competitions and been exhibited. The perfect teacher you may think.
Entering education as a teacher or lecturer will introduce you to cohorts of students that have most likely been educated under a very different system to the one you will have experienced. They will have been educated to a grade based system that has rewarded the repetition of facts given and learnt. They will have been reliant on teachers to provide answers not questions. Teachers that will have suggested playing safe rather than taking risks based on previous grade results. Encouraged to repeat the success of others by following rules rather than encouraging the possibility of failure as part of creative learning.
How do I know this? Because this is what the students and teachers tell me. It is in no way a criticism of schools or teachers but it is a criticism of the system they have to work within. Do not expect the students you teach to have a broad knowledge of popular culture, to read for fun, to know the names of photographers so important to the medium, to attend talks, exhibitions or buy photo books. The majority will not. Their time will have been spent on passing exams. Reading will have become a chore and learning a process of compliance.
The gulf between your knowledge of the medium and those you are hoping to teach will be vast. That maybe expected but the lack of engagement with photography as anything other than a grade-led school subject may surprise you more. This means that if you are teaching Year One students you may well spend little time actually teaching photography and more time teaching a new way of learning, boosting confidence, encouraging experimentation, explaining the importance of research and providing emotional support.
These can be nuanced and sophisticated skill-sets, relying on your personal life experience, sense of empathy and ability to respond to a broad range of personalities.
This is hard to explain to any photographer hoping to teach based purely upon their photography experience rather than their teaching knowledge. You don’t want to crush a prospective teacher’s dream but it is important to explain the reality, a reality that can be incredibly rewarding, but not for everyone, and certainly not for every photographer.
In addition to your teaching duties you will need to master academic administration, the art of working in a team and understand modules, indicative resources, learning outcomes, academic hours, marking, marking loads, summative feedback and Moodle! All of which can provide new challenges to a photographer used to working on their own with clients taking on the chores of organisation.
I believe that there should be more photographers teaching who have real-life experience of the industry, and more former art directors and photo editors teaching photography, but for this to happen there needs to be respect from both sides and transparency of expectation. With many art courses promoting themselves on employability it is essential that those teaching have been employed in the very areas the students are hoping to join. However, teaching within an institution is not mentoring, and requires more of the photographer than the delivery of a one-off talk. It takes resilience, commitment, humility, patience and a sense of humour.
If you feel that these are qualities you have then look into working as a photography teacher. If not you may be better off looking elsewhere.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2020