In the early ‘80s I changed the regular tests in my Educational Psychology class and added a set of more challenging questions to each test. Some of the students were troubled while others enjoyed the questions and often hung around after the test to talk with me about the challenge. After the final exam I invited the “challenge students” to have lunch and asked them if they would like to help me the next semester to teach my class how to study for the tests; they jumped at the chance!
In a couple semesters these peer mentors earned their own “official discussion groups.” In a couple years the Peer Mentor Program in my Educational Psychology class became established and known across campus. Eventually this program was expanded to a freshman class for potentially at-risk freshman with a peer mentor in a leadership role in each class. Why did these programs work?
When I started the program, I assumed these “bright students” would do some 1-to-1 facilitation. But I soon realized there was much more to this than quick-learners helping slow-learners. It was soon obvious that the peer mentors did help the struggling students to make huge improvements. It was also obvious that the peer mentor program helped the successful students to become much better teachers. And the program helped me to understand how a mentoring environment could work to help struggling students, committed students, future teachers, and me to understand a different view of learning. Listening to students that were challenged was an important first step, answering their question was the next step, and then challenging them with support led to more confidence and success. What does this have to do with learning photography?
Last week I sent an e-mail to a new member of our Peer Mentor Program (PMP) for photography. She seems somewhat new, but skilled, in photography and joined a few months ago in the middle of our pandemic Zoom meetings. I’ve never actually met her in “real life”, but I’ve been impressed by her commitment, improvement, and questions during Zoom meetings. It got me wondering: What were the characteristics of good education peer mentors? Why did some of my education peer mentors stick around for 6, 7, 8 semesters or more? Are the characteristics of those education peer mentors consistent with the photography PMP? I suspect you might be wondering what are the key characteristics of a successful photography Peer Mentor Program? Would a single individual mentor be more or less helpful to your photography than joining a Photography Peer Mentor Program? Let’s look at what I consider the key characteristics.
The key factor to the success of my education peer mentors was their commitment to becoming a great teacher. OK, that’s an easy one. To really improve your photography you have to be committed to the extent that you get out and take photos … regularly ! Duh ! But the pandemic can make this a real challenge if you are counting on traveling to iconic places for photographs. Sorry, you need to take photos regularly to improve. And I must admit I’m not always doing this myself. More later on how our PMP can encourage commitment.
The second factor that impacted my education peer mentors was their reaction to failure. Good pre-service or in-service teachers aren’t destroyed by failure. My original peer mentors typically failed to help improve their students for the first test. I had a test almost every week in my class, so students and their peer mentors didn’t have to succeed immediately; they had to actively respond to “failure.” You don’t have to immediately “succeed” in taking great photos; you are likely to assume you are going to get home and view some great photos. When the photos aren’t as good as you thought they would be, you need to take time to explore why they fell short of your expectations. BUT if you have a peer mentor, or better yet a peer mentor group, to critique your photos you are more likely to move forward and recognize what you could improve upon … and how you might do that. More later on how our PMP helps photographers identify and deal with not-so-great photos.
The third factor that had a huge impact on my education peer mentors was a willingness and curiosity about trying something new. In my education class there was a test almost every week which gave the peer mentors an opportunity to guide their students to a new study approach for the next test. The peer mentors met with me as a group every week to discuss how to solve these problems. I certainly did not have all the answers, but the veteran peer mentors had lots of strategies to share with the rookies. The photography peer mentors approach this problem in the same way by suggesting changes in composition, exposure, B&W vs. color, etc. Our photography PMP has a wide variety of photographers with very different experience. We have a Monthly Theme Challenge that gives everyone a chance to submit a photo (more on that later) which gives them feedback on their photos, including suggestions of how they might improve that photo. The next blog post will probably address one approach we use to encourage trying something new in our photography.
The fourth factor (and this one is critical) is that a successful peer mentor program has to have a foundation of learning together where the interaction is respectful and honest. The education peer mentors seemed to have new problems in their discussion group every week, and at each weekly meeting we talked about how they might solve the problem. Most of these students had taken, or were taking, an interpersonal communication class with me. The class was only for peer mentors and the focus of the class was primarily active listening and constructive feedback. This worked out very well since we could talk about the problems in-class and then learn together. In our photography PMP we don’t have to deal with critical “personal” problems (in our education class the problems were often the “personal” failure their students had on a test) but as the PMP facilitator I have to be aware of creating a supportive environment. Our PMP groups have a wide variety of interests and skills (e.g., wildlife vs. landscape photography) so when we “learn together” we are often counting on different peer mentors to lead our learning. I think it is fair to say that we enjoy each other’s company, value each other’s knowledge and skills, and appreciate each other’s guidance.
So, if you are interested in improving your photography what approach should you take? You could “hire” a mentor (which might cost you big $$), join a photo club (which could be very helpful, but could be clique), or try to improve on your own. I found improving on my own to be very difficult for me; I needed good feedback and it wasn’t found on Facebook. I didn’t have the confidence (or the money?) to hire a mentor. I worried about joining a photography club where everyone seemed to be an expert; at least I assumed they were all experts since the people who talked at meetings obviously were experts. So my suggestion …
Joining a photo club is a good start. And assuming that the group is cliquey is an assumption that won’t get you any progress. There are all kinds of photography clubs from huge clubs in large urban areas to small clubs in rural mountainous areas. You can usually find them on-line and join if you are willing to take that scary step to join a group that might know a lot more than you do about photography. I’d suggest you think about the following:
YOU – Are you truly committed to regularly putting forth time to take all kinds of photographs and review/edit them yourself? Not just going on a vacation. Are you willing to put your photos forward for other photographers to review and give you honest feedback? Not just FB or Instagram. Are you capable of accepting criticism and trying to change your photography? Being upset with yourself is OK, being angry with the comments of others is not OK.
OTHERS – Can you find other photographers who might enjoy working in a group? Where the focus will be photos. Can you identify a group of photographers, or create a group, that will be honest and respectful with one another? This can be very difficult to assess but being honest and respectful is critical. Can you find, or create, a group of amateur photographers where members have a variety of photo skills, want to improve, and are willing to meet monthly? Finding a place to meet might be problematic.
I was fortunate to join the Teton Photography Club and have them allow me to start a Peer Mentor Program within the club. I started with 7 amateur photographers and now almost 5 years later we have approximately 40 amateur photographers. Before the pandemic we had two smaller groups of about 15-20 members that met on different nights each month. Presently, we have a Zoom meeting once a month. The Peer Mentor Program has had an incredible impact on my photography because of the people in the group and their support, encouragement, feedback and guidance.
In the next few months, I hope to share with you what I did to build the program and what the peer mentors and I have integrated into the program to make it more successful. It has been truly fun for me. I have made a lot of friends (who I hope to actually see in person and go on photo shoots with in the future) who have helped me improve my photography. I could NEVER have made the same photo improvement the last four years without my peer mentor friends. And I look forward to returning to normal in 2021 and I hope to share how to create and enjoy a Peer Mentor Program.
In the next FirstAnAmateur.com blog post I will begin to share the growth of the program. I’ll start with one of the activities we have learned that have had an important impact on our photography. If you read and responded to the last blog (“Learning from/with Peer Mentors”) you saw (and hopefully voted on) the top five photos that were entered in the January ICE Theme Challenge. I wasn’t one of the top five 🙂 but I have posted my ICE Theme Photo at the top and bottom of this blog.
The blog last week seemed to have had a problem for some of you. WordPress sent you (if you are a subscriber) a copy of the blog with blurry photos. The photos in the actual blog ( https://firstanamateur.com/2021/01/29/2021-learning-from-with-the-peer-mentors/) were fine, but the e-mail that WordPress sent to you contained blurry photos. Please excuse the mistake! I’m still not sure what the mistake was but I have spent a few dozen hours trying to fix it. My ICE Theme Photo is below. If you are a subscriber and have received an e-mail that included the blog and it looks like the photo below is blurry, PLEASE let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.