(Don’t) Say Cheese

Photographic technology is creating a minefield for educators who need to strike a balance between keeping parents in the loop through individual images of a child’s activities, and getting on with the job of teaching.

As independent schools, we are conditioned into thinking that we need to constantly give more and add more. Yet, it is widely established in the education sector that teachers are overworked, overwhelmed and over-implementing.

Teachers feel pressurised to be responsive and keep parents in the loop in real-time. One such example, is teachers documenting and sharing daily classroom activities with parents.

Gone are the days of “How was your day, Johnny?” Every parent is sent photos of their child’s activities, such as presenting an oral or making a telescope. This behaviour reinforces Fairfield University Psychology Professor Linda Henkel’s idea that we are taking photographs to communicate, rather than to remember.

We need to ask whether the rise of technology has been all good? In the past we were considerate and selective of the photos we took. We had to send them off to be developed and wait to find out how the photographs turned out.

As a result, children felt special when their photograph was included in the annual school magazine. Nowadays, every child must feature. This not only diminishes the value but opens a door for conflict – there are parents who count how often their child appears and compares these instances with those of other children.

What’s more we’re raising children to identify the cellphone as a cue to smile – thus eliminating spontaneous action photos. The act of taking photos in the classroom has become a habit.

In a LinkedIn article, Christopher Conley, a Primary Years Programme (PYP) Coordinator for an Early Years School, points out that we need to consider the situation from the pupils’ point of view, namely that they might feel the need to perform when a camera is pointed at them. “This object in my hand is more important than you, can often be the subconscious message you send,” Conley says.

According to Henkel, we are suffering from the ‘photo-taking impairment effect’. This means that, by treating the camera as an external memory device, we are impairing our short-term memory and are not adequately processing information – rather relying on photographs to trigger our memories at a later stage.

“Recognising when to take a photo and when to just observe,” says Conley, is something that needs to be considered, if you use a camera frequently in the classroom. He adds that the value of photographs could be diminished by taking too many photos.

There are also concerns and legalities around consent. Parents might consent to photographs being used internally (i.e. Class Dojo, newsletter). However, this is often misunderstood. Images can easily be screenshot/ saved and then shared on platforms such as Whatsapp, and newsletters can be forwarded.

In other words, what is meant to be shared in a safe space, immediately becomes public property – even if it is just shared with ‘Grandma Sue’. These instances usually occur with the best intentions, but innocent acts can quickly go awry.

This was illustrated in the 2019 case of a teacher being suspended for sharing a photograph that showed African pupils separated from the White pupils, which was taken out of context. At least if marketers make this ‘mistake’, they are equipped with the experience and knowledge to ‘save face’ and can enact the school’s crisis management plan quickly.

School marketers are dealing with the wrath of the rise of photography and the red tape associated with it. Some parents do not sign photo permission waivers, which forces marketers to exclude pupils from photographs, blur faces, or, even worse, cover their face with an emoji.

Some parents are satisfied with their children being portrayed on social media, as long as their name is not used, orthey can appear in a group photo, but not close-ups.

Marketers want to showcase the school in all its glory – its achievements, but also its authentic, spontaneous moments. This is made difficult when you need to do some complex editing or angle your camera to exclude a certain child. Added to this are other POPIA restrictions involving photo storage on personal devices.

In addition, with parents being flooded by information – they are less inclined to read the weekly newsletter, as they feel they already know what’s going on in their child’s class. However, newsletters function as more than a recap of the week, with important dates to remember – they also show what the rest of the school is up to, to keep parents/children informed and excited for a future Grade.

Marketers are constantly operating in a minefield. Let the teachers do their job. Let them focus on their child. Author and education consultant Peter De Witt postulates the idea to “de-implement” whereby teachers need to “unplug some of what they do in their classrooms or schools in an effort to find the elusive extra time we are looking for, and move from just doing things to having more impact”.

Schools should have a photography policy in place, not only for guidelines on taking good photographs, but also to establish the school’s objectives when taking photographs.

Live in the moment. Experience the moment. Let’s not live a life that is over-documented and underexperienced.