The quiet questions we ask ourselves play a critical role in the results we get. As an educator who is endlessly curious about how to support student learning and as an avid photographer who is endlessly curious about the world around me, I find myself constantly coming back to the same question; where should I focus?
As an educator, this question guides important inquiry around topics ranging from district and school improvement to planning engaging units that challenge and support every learner. As a photographer, this question guides decisions I make about composing photographs that I hope will help people see beauty in the mundane.
While photography and teaching seem like disparate endeavors, I’ve come to realize that experts in both of these fields have internalized common lessons that guide efforts that yield extraordinary results.
Lesson 1: Conditions don’t determine outcomes; they inform strategy.
Expert photographers don’t lament less-than-ideal conditions. If the lighting is poor, they don’t complain about the darkness, they adjust their strategy by using shutter speed or aperture suitable for the conditions that they cannot control. Similarly, expert teachers don’t spend much time complaining about what they think their students should be. They adjust their instructional strategies to provide appropriate levels of challenge or support to ensure they meet each learner’s needs.
Lesson 2: Where we place our focus determines what others see.
Imagine a tourist and a photographer standing next to one another at a war memorial in Washington D.C. Both of them take a photo at the exact same time. The tourist posts an utterly forgettable photograph of the entire sprawling area with the tag “#war_memorial”. The photographer shows his editor a photograph of a close up of a veteran in his late 80’s, with his arm outstretched, reverently touching one bronzed name among thousands. Under the photo, the photographer has written one word; “brother”. Where we place our focus is always a choice. As educators, do we focus on kids’ weaknesses or strengths? Do our syllabi focus on rules and grading scales, or important and authentic opportunities to learn? Expert teachers never under-estimate how their focus influences what students see.
Lesson 3: Don’t say “smile”! Create conditions where you can catch them smiling.
The best photographs of people are rarely posed. Telling someone to smile is like telling someone to act surprised; you’ll get a response, but it will not be authentic. A photograph that truly captures who someone “is” occurs when that person is immersed in something they enjoy doing. Annual school pictures are like large-scale assessments, they are a forced smile that traces the passage of time, but they don’t tell us much about the whole child. Expert teachers don’t have to tell their students to “learn!”, they create conditions where students are engaged by connecting academic content to student’s natural curiosity or connecting that content to students’ own interests.
Lesson 4: We often find exactly what we look for.
No one is happy when his or her insurance agent comes to take a photo. The agent shows up expecting to take photos of something that has be damaged. If you’ve been in multiple accidents, you may develop a viscerally negative response to the mere sight of your agent. Too often, some students see school as a place where educators constantly engage in efforts to document their deficits. Eventually, these students come to see themselves as damaged. An expert photographer is nothing like an insurance agent with a camera. The photographer arrives at a shoot expecting to see strengths. They look for ways to frame their subject in a manner that acknowledges weaknesses yet builds on strengths. Expert photographers get used to hearing their subjects say “Wow! I can’t believe that’s me.” Similarly, expert teachers don’t spend time endlessly documenting liabilities; they address those liabilities by building on students’ strengths. These teachers grow accustomed to hearing their students ask for feedback. They grow accustomed to their students coming in for extra help. They grow accustomed to hearing their students say “I can’t believe how well I did!” and reply by saying “I never doubted you for a moment.”
Expert teachers are like expert photographers; they see breath-taking possibility that others – even their subjects – often miss.
As you make decisions about your classroom, where do you place your focus? As you look at your students, what do you see?
Tony Frontier, PhD is an assistant professor of doctoral leadership studies at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, WI and an ASCD faculty member. His most recent ASCD book, Making Teachers Better not Bitter: Balancing Teacher Evaluation, Supervision and Reflection for Professional Growth was published in 2016.