For the past year I have been challenged to work in the unknown. I had about four days to switch gears from freelance photojournalist to teacher. I was living and working in the Middle East when I heard word that I had received a photojournalism teaching job at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, Fla. I had taught before, but not on a day-to-day basis like I would in a classroom. Looking back after a year, I never could have imagined the roller coaster of highs and lows that come with being in a classroom.
I quickly learned that my job description was not just to teach, but to be an editor, helper, problem-solver, friend, behaviorist, confidant, sounding board, timekeeper, photographer, bully protector, Web guru, project creator, lesson-plan writer, and most importantly … a safe place. –Luanne Dietz
In my fifth month of teaching we were in the planning stages for our next issue. I broke our advanced focus class into groups and asked them questions like what makes you tick, what do you think people in the community should know about John Hopkins, and most importantly, what are the misconceptions about our school.
One of my 8th grade girls, Linda Corbett, raised her hand and told me that she is one of the only black students in her honors class, and how much that bothers her. From this very conversation the diversity issue took form. Our lead story for the issue was centered on the achievement gap and the stereotypes that the students feel exist at John Hopkins. I was so proud of the students and their abilities to find interesting ways to depict this difficult topic both in their story angles and photographs. Our students are one of a kind: They have a voice, and it will be heard.
I think it’s safe to say that this has been one of the most shaping and challenging years of my career. When I first got into photojournalism it was the ability to bring change that drove me. With hindsight, I realize that somewhere between college internships and the push for my first real job, I lost that initial motivation. Thankfully, this year has helped reground me. Never before have I had an experience as rewarding as photojournalism, until I did my first year of teaching.
At the beginning of my first year, I battled daily with my brain. Was it because I could not make it in photojournalism that I became a teacher? Am I not good enough to cover the big stories? Is that why I’m in a classroom? I now recognize that all those falsehoods that lived inside my head were my own insecurities about who I was becoming. At some point in this last year I came to realize that what I was actively pursuing through teaching, stemmed from the same place that drove my photojournalism. I’m in this to bring change. I’ve given my life to a craft that I believe fosters freedom. Nowhere is it said that there is just one way to pursue these goals.
With a new year ahead, I’m looking forward to digging deeper into multimedia with my students and showing them how to take their stories to the next level using audio and video. Of course, I have students who insist upon bouncing pencils on their desks, or tapping their feet to the rhythms in their heads. I’m determined this year to teach them how to channel those annoying sounds into beats that will help carry their visual storytelling.
My hope is that by providing a creative outlet for my students, I will empower them with the freedom to discover themselves. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to facilitate growth through art.
Luanne Dietz is a freelance photojournalist based in St. Petersburg, Fla. Dietz focuses on giving a voice to the voiceless through her photography. While at the University of Florida studying photojournalism and religion, she fell in love with documentary storytelling. When Dietz isn’t capturing life in rectangles, you can find her in her middle school classroom, where she teaches photojournalism with the Journeys in Journalism program, a partnership with the St. Petersburg Times.
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.