Since March of 2020, the question has been omni-present in our collective consciousness: When can we go back to in-person? In-person lessons, in-person classes, in-person rehearsals, in-person...anything. When will this be over?
We’ve come a long way in the last year and a half. Violin teachers, students, and their families pivoted online with no notice. With collective ingenuity, community support (albeit at a distance), and sheer determination and desperation, we’ve carved out an online existence for music education. We’ve learned a lot about what works, and what doesn’t work.
The whole world is also reeling from the trauma and grief of the pandemic. We learned to see even our closest family as potentially dangerous, not to hug or get too close of them for fear of infecting them or becoming infected. We spent holidays apart and we delayed celebrations. We were separated from those we most wanted to be with out of fear of the unknown virus. One of my students recently told me that what he misses the most about in-person lessons is being able to stand next to me and be close to me.
In many industries, namely education and those deemed "essential," teachers and workers have endured verbal and emotional abuse, with frustrated customers even going so far as to state that they didn’t care if teachers died, so long as children could go back to school in-person. It’s going to take a long time for us to recover from the shocking realization that our lives and the lives of our colleagues mean so little to those we serve and work with.
Things are different this summer - we can start doing some things again. We have learned much more about COVID-19. Innovations in vaccine development and distribution have brought community spread down in many areas of the world. We have more knowledge about how to prevent transmission. The CDC has said that vaccinated people can gather, even without masks. Schools are preparing to open fully in-person this fall.
With all these developments, music teachers are faced with a number of questions, namely, "What do we do, and how do we do it?"
Conflict resolution specialist Priya Parker, in an interview on author Brené Brown's podcast, stated that she is most concerned about is all of us racing back to something "without pausing and asking, 'What have we learned during this time about our work? How we work? About at the core of it what it is we do and what is needed right now? What have we learned about things like access and equity in this year of reckoning?'"
Questions have started to pop up in teacher groups on the internet, about how to handle students and their families with different vaccination situations (and different approaches to the vaccine), how to adjust restrictive attendance policies to ensure that sick students do not attend in-person lessons, about what safety precautions teachers are taking for in-person lessons, how to do recitals, how to create an equitable experience for students who choose to remain online. I’ve started to get emails from potential new students who are tired of online lessons and are leaving their current teacher because they want something in-person. I’ve handled queries throughout the pandemic from parents and students about when we’re going back.
The mental effort is exhausting, with so much to consider: the current (and constantly changing) situation, our own families’ needs, and the needs/preferences of each student. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, despite strongly worded opinions on the internet. Some students and families are ready to go back to in-person, without ever opening Zoom again. Some have realized that online works better for them, especially those with lengthy commutes who don't want to return to a long drive for violin lessons. Some teachers may have found that online teaching provides scheduling convenience and other online work opportunities, and they never want to go back in-person. Others are ready to accept a combination of in-person and online (especially when it’s more convenient for their schedules). And when a teacher's and student's views don't match, does the student seek out a new teacher? Does the teacher ask a student to leave? There’s no easy, neat, or tidy answer.
Later on in that podcast interview, Parker asks, "What have we learned in this pandemic that we actually want to bring with us, that we want to move forward? And finally, what do we want to reinvent or invent anew in this moment?" Such a moment does not happen very often - a moment that allows us to decide how we want to be together and what we want that to look like.
Teachers have an opportunity to not only redesign their studios to suit the current moment, but to adjust policies, procedures, and ways of doing things that they’d wanted to change long before. They can consider and clarify the values that define their work.
Here’s a series of questions that I’m asking myself as I prepare to have a studio with both in-person and online options this year:
What is my personal level of risk? What are the conditions under which I feel safe, comfortable, and able to be fully present in my teaching without worrying about my personal safety? The best learning environment for a student is one in which they feel safe and their teacher feels safe. If either or both parties is worried about getting sick for the entire lesson, that is not a safe lesson space.
What safety precautions am I putting in place in my teaching environment? How will I communicate these protocols clearly to my studio families, and how will I reinforce them in-person?
What if a student wants to remain 100 percent online indefinitely, regardless of the pandemic? How will I handle facilitating those lessons, especially if I don’t teach at my home and need to transport technology to make an online lesson happen? How will I handle group class and performance opportunities for them?
I’m still working on the answers to these questions myself. I’ve been thinking a lot about them, though. While I’m not here to tell you how to run your studio this year, I do have four guiding thoughts, inspired by that podcast I keep referencing:
"It’s so good to see you again in-person, but it’s a little disorienting because I’d gotten so used to ‘eye contact’ on Zoom - it might take me a little while to get used to looking right at you! How are you feeling about this?"
"Here are the new safety protocols, which are totally not what I fantasized about teaching when I decided to become a music teacher, but keeping the room clean and safe for us and everyone else in the building is important to me and I’m grateful that you’re helping with that."
"This is going to be a new experience for all of us - I feel a little weird, even though I’m really happy to see you. How about you? How are you feeling?"
There’s more, there’s always so much more. It’s my hope that teachers, students and parents reading this know that they are not alone in navigating the transition back to whatever it is we’re going back to. I also hope we can all take some time this summer to reflect and lay the groundwork for a courageous, new, more equitable and kinder world in music education.
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