School Images Matter: What Do They Say?

You’ve heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words,” right? I believe this is true and especially important when it comes to imagery that represents schools today. School images influence public perception about what “good” education looks like and how to determine if a school is a “good” school. Therefore, I think educators need to speak out when images ring false—promoting dialogue that paints accurate pictures of quality education.

The school choice movement has created a battleground for student enrollment in Arizona as organizations struggle to keep their doors open, get their doors open, or put others out of business. Competition threatens to destroy those who don’t fight because student enrollment is directly tied to school funding. As schools compete in this enrollment showdown, I’ve seen some troubling ads in the last year. I’d like to discuss two recent educational ads and offer a counter dialogue to the myths they perpetuate. I don’t intend to imply that either of these organizations (which I will not identify) are bad educational institutions. I simply intend to point out how their ads mislead the public about what quality education should be.

I saw this first ad for an online high school on a billboard about a year ago. It compares a rigid looking desk to a soft looking chair and proposes a simple question about which is more preferable.

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Since this ad promotes an online high school, I assume the advertisers intend to imply that the comfy chair is the right choice. In my opinion, the comfy chair would only be a good place for high school kids to rest their backsides…if the chair were located in a real life classroom with real peers, real teachers, and authentic, engaging curriculum. This ad misleads people into thinking that learning is about where kids are sitting. I’d like to disagree by offering some images that I created to represent other possible comparisons between online high school and a brick-and-mortar school environment:

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 5.04.47 PMScreen Shot 2016-12-12 at 11.28.13 PMScreen Shot 2016-12-12 at 5.05.01 PMOnline high school might be the right decision for some students, but I don’t think these schools should create ads that make it look easy or comfortable. High school is hard work, and families need to see the big picture about the differences in online education when they consider such an important decision.

I saw the second ad about a week ago on the back of two different mailers sent to my home. It was a preschool ad that mentioned STEAM and claimed to promote kindergarten readiness. There was only one image, printed in the center of the ad:

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As a preschool teacher, this image of a preschool child staring at a tablet with a teacher idly watching made me groan out loud. We just can’t be using images like this to represent quality preschool education. I think preschool should look a lot more like this:

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Young learners benefit from being together engaged in authentic, hands on learning. Seeing pictures of young kids staring at computer screens is disturbing. Could there possibly be market research that families find this ad desirable? Even worse, could some families dismiss the importance of enrolling in preschool when they see this ad and think, “My child already uses his tablet all the time at home?”

As educators, we can’t let misleading images speak for us. Instead, I think we should be really brave and open our practices to the families in our community. We can invite families to visit our classrooms, we can share detailed information about our quality environment, and when it’s appropriate we can share pictures or videos of students engaged in authentic learning experiences. The images we use in education DO matter. This is an enrollment showdown, and we must stand up for the things we believe in so that quality programs make it through the battle.

Image credits:


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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