Exhausted from Teaching Online

April 1, 2020, 11:26 AM · "I've never been so exhausted, after teaching online lessons all week!"

That has been a common observation from teaching colleagues around the world, as they adjust to a new way of doing things over the last few weeks.

Personally, I find it to be a sneaky kind of exhaustion. I'm entering my third week of teaching all my private students online. In some ways, I feel like I'm simply keeping the same routine, just teaching the classes online instead of in person. No big deal! But then I'll realize that things aren't really so normal.

For example, on Monday I taught my very first online Suzuki group class via Zoom. It went very well. We played some pieces, played some games, listened to each other play solos and simply enjoyed seeing each other's familiar faces for the first time in several weeks. Job well done, everyone seemed pretty happy and connected, playing together. I could relax, go over some notes, think about next week's lessons. Whew!

That night, though, I had an epic stress dream about teaching an online group lesson. The lesson was to start in about five minutes, and I was trying to get on the Internet. However, the technology I was using was from somewhere around the late 1980s. I was sitting at a giant, clunky computer in a school lab, looking at a slate-gray screen full of code. I was trying to connect to the Internet, before the World Wide Web, and nobody could help me. Meanwhile, the time was ticking and I was five minutes late, then 10 minutes late, 15 minutes late.... What would my students think? I was madly trying to figure it out, over and over, to no avail whatsoever!

My studio belies the whole idea of "normalcy" as well. On one hand, I've tried to make things feel as "normal" as possible for my students. I purposely set up my computer so that when students see me for their online lessons, they'll see me at approximately the same angle as they would have, had they been here in person. I'm in the same corner, at my desk.

However, it doesn't feel particularly normal for me.

Laurie teaching online

My computer is up on a table, on a box, in the middle of the room. I have a studio light on me, so they can see me. And beyond that, the rest of the room has turned into a mad sewing house where I'm making cloth face masks for my family and friends to wear to the rare trips to the grocery store. On the couch where parents normally sit are scissors, a cutting board, all the scraps of cotton I could find from several decades of sewing projects and every inch of elastic and binding tape I could find, going back to my grandmother's collection. I've set up my sewing machine so that I can sit on top of the wicker chest where my students normally put their violins. The sewing is a fine distraction for me; but it's certainly a reminder of why we're all marooned in our homes.

It's all exhausting. So is the advice. One one hand, it's incredibly helpful; for example, someone simply gave me all the settings I needed to change on Zoom, a platform that automatically perceives the sounds coming from a violin as "background noise." Change the settings, and you can actually hear the violin. And teachers have filled social media channels with wonderful ideas, creative ways to handle teaching, out-of-the box ways to look at all this.

But that can be overwhelming. Read too much advice, and you might think that you need to learn a half-dozen other technologies, to make special videos, to turn your studio into a sound stage, buy a fancy microphone, start special chats with students, post PDF's, try teaching in a clown suit, make special signage...All good ideas - but they can become intimidating when they come at you all at once. And considering how fast everyone had to switch gears, it was inevitable that this information would come as a barrage.

All I can say is, step back. Do it the way you do it. Don't get intimidated. Keep it simple and keep it YOU. Start with the idea of connecting with your students, the specific people that they are, and then take it from there. We'll get through this, and maybe learn a few things in the process!

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April 1, 2020 at 04:44 PM · I have a theory about what is exhausting us as teachers moving to the videoconferencing environment -- we immediately apply the same standards of perfectionism to our use of the technology that we would to other aspects of our professional work. I like my lecture notes, my exams, and my homework assignments to be immaculate, with beautiful chemical diagrams, nicely laid out on the page, etc. I pride myself on my chalkboard technique too. In Zoom it's a mess, and I struggle with my little pen on my tablet to find the right buttons to go between markings and erasure and all of that. If you were demonstrating the shift in "Humoresque" you wouldn't fumble it. Your hand positions and your posture would be picture-perfect and the shift would be flawless. So you assume the same should be true of your technological manipulations. But you haven't practiced the latter for 10,000 hours.

Today I had a problem-solving session with my course (it's 5 grad students and one unusually talented undergrad in a special-topic doctoral seminar so it ought to be a breeze). But one student could only participate by voice with her phone, two were losing connections all the time, and it's just a different conversation environment than I would have if I were moving around in the classroom with all six of them stationed around the white-boards working on different problems. So it took 90 minutes to go through 45 minutes worth of problems. Fortunately, none of them had anything else to do. They can't go to lab any more because Governor Northam has issued a stay-at-home order.

The thing is, "don't sweat the details" is merely easy to say. For those of us who have a meticulous nature -- and likely that includes the large majority of violin teachers -- it's really hard to do, and, yeah, it wears on you after a while.

April 1, 2020 at 04:49 PM · Great article. I am in my fifth week of teaching online... and I got some great advice that really helped me. I am practicing keeping my energy output at a lower level. In-person lessons.. i'm always a 10. Online, I try to maintain about a 6-7. The other thing, is talking more quietly than you think you should. I really wore my voice out the first month of teaching online. Speaking more quietly really helped! Thanks for this.!

April 1, 2020 at 05:31 PM · Laurie, you have always been such a positive influence and such a trooper, at least as long as I have been in touch with you in one way or another.

My life as a violin maker hasn't changed all that much, YET. Social isolation is rather normal for me. I'll probably lose a lot of business, and will need to refund some commission deposits as musicians suffer a loss in income, particularly those who tour to give live performances.

Even the somewhat wealthy are likely to reduce discretionary spending, since nearly everyone who has investments has seen the value of their investments decrease.

Most people who play the violin already have one (or three), so I would expect that the violin sale market will be temporarily devastated, similar to what is happening in much of the musician world.

April 1, 2020 at 05:59 PM · Please share those magic Zoom settings! I've only taught one Zoom lesson so far, but it was very unsatisfactory.

April 1, 2020 at 06:08 PM · Magic Zoom settings (or at least settings that improve things!):

  • "Original sound" should be ON.
  • Go to "audio settings," then to "Advanced settings," you need to use the setting "disable" for both "Suppress Persistent Background Noise" and "Suppress Intermittent Background Noise." (It thinks the violin is background noise!) Echo Cancellation should be on "Auto."

Hope this helps!

April 1, 2020 at 07:09 PM · I'm surprised that people have money for lessons! Watch out in the next couple of months, though. The next part of this is going to be the massive unemployment whose effects will trickle up to those with means. Don't be surprised if you're bartering lessons this summer. Which still puts you ahead of symphony players who are just flat out of work!

April 1, 2020 at 07:19 PM · Hey guys, in my experiments so far, the sound on Skype works better than zoom, but Zoom is better if the student has a poor internet connection. I believe the problem is that zoom is still trying to reject some "noise" even when the settings are all turned to "off". I even tried having students wear headphones and it didn't seem to matter.

This was especially a problem if the student was using vibrato or they were tapping their foot. The sound in zoom would go down, down, down as it tried to cancel out what it thought was background noise.

This is more amplified by the fact that it *seems* that users can't change audio settings on their phones. If they're connected from a computer, it's fine, but audio settings on the phone seem restricted to "mute" and a couple of others.

I actually recommend starting with Skype, and then using zoom as a backup if Skype is doing something weird.

However, both Skype and Zoom LACK the ability to change audio settings if connecting from a phone or tablet. Thus, for lessons to work well, connecting from a computer is a *must* so that the noise suppression and automatic volume adjustment can be turned off.

Phone connection can kind of work, but it's extremely far from ideal.

With all of these problems, though, I've actually had some very successful online lessons so far (to the extent that I would call them 95% as effective as in-person). However, this was only when the student was connecting from a computer, using headphones, and had a solid internet connection.

April 1, 2020 at 09:01 PM · "I'm surprised that people have money for lessons! Watch out in the next couple of months, though."

In my community, the folks who are buying lessons for their kids and paying a whole semester in advance (typical policy around here) have jobs that are not at significant risk. I have tenure, so I feel my job is very secure. That's not 100%, but I think any university would not want to be sacking tenured professors without having exhausted every other option, even in an exigency. At least, I hope so.

April 1, 2020 at 10:24 PM · Question: how did you manage 28 people playing at the same time on Zoom? Was latency an issue?

April 1, 2020 at 10:47 PM · Thank you for those magic settings!

April 1, 2020 at 11:26 PM · Music and violin are some of the few things that kids - and everyone - can really continue to do during this time. It provides goals, something to do, and a sense of connection, to a teacher but also just to the world of expression and art. I think it's something to keep going in a person's life during a time like this.

April 2, 2020 at 01:43 AM · Laurie help! How do I get to the settings to change to the magic zoom audio settings. The carat is nowhere to be found!

April 2, 2020 at 03:26 AM · I should add: I've never seen my students happier to see me than now, even though -- or perhaps because! -- it's over a computer screen. I think it's one thing that makes their lives feel more normal. Even if the lessons are inefficient, that's not the point. The point is they get to see a familiar face, have some quality interaction, and as a bonus, continue learning some new concepts.

I've also found that this is a great time to *review* old pieces instead of introducing new ones, for the most part.

April 2, 2020 at 07:48 AM · I have a bunch of friends who are (non-music) university professors. Most have complained that one of the most tiring things about the switch to teaching online is having colleagues constantly tell them they're doing it wrong. Everyone seems to have strong opinions about how to do it. The best thing to do might be to take just enough advice early enough to work out your own system, and then tune out everything after that.

April 2, 2020 at 11:51 AM · Thanks for this article. You captured exactly how I’m feeling!

April 2, 2020 at 12:12 PM · I'm happy to take a constructive suggestion from a colleague as long as it doesn't start with starting over from scratch with some completely different software that they've been using forever.

April 2, 2020 at 02:37 PM · Hi Paul Deck! Great comments. There was an excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the switch to teaching online, and what you’re saying is very much in line with the author. Step back, do not put so much pressure on yourself, use this time to re-group, re-think and enjoy the free space.

No, the sound on Zoom is nowhere near ideal, and it is especially bad for cellists and quite dependent on the internet connection on both ends. The network is stretched to capacity, and will likely not improve quickly enough to suit our naturally perfectionist nature’s. That said, I have been able to teach two solid weeks online without undue stress and exhaustion by lowering my expectations and simply trying to connect with my students. I am a normal part of their lives, and by being there and being as present as I can be, I am finding that there are tangible changes in their playing and their attitude towards their lessons. It’s been good, if not great, and progress is being made. And that’s what keeps me from being exhausted. Cheers and hang in there everyone!

April 4, 2020 at 01:29 AM · Thank you for the perspectives and practical advice!

April 4, 2020 at 01:33 PM · I'm a child psychologist who also switched to online, and my colleagues and i are all saying the same thing as you all, that it is SO tiring, even though it is also very good in many ways, just as you all describe. It feels more intense. Is it mastering the technology, is it the face to face aspect, is it that we are all at best super stressed right now, is it, and i hope its this one, that maybe it just matters more now, to have these moments of connection. It matters so much now to be able to maintain this element from our old lives, maintain these relatinoships, maintain our jobs, and for our patients and students, hopefully help them maintain aspects of their well being.

April 4, 2020 at 06:21 PM · Laurie, et al.,

As an introvert I do know why most people find these online methods tiring - you aren't getting the energy transfer that comes from being with people in the same space.

The difference between and introvert and an extrovert is that the extrovert gains energy in those people-to-people exchanges while introverts tend to get their batteries drained. The reverse is also true, my batteries get charged when I'm not interacting with others, particularly one-to-one which really drains my batteries. So the extroverts have the double whammy with social-distance separation and dealing with people who aren't there in the room with you.

You can blame it on the technology, but chances are your batteries are getting drained and not charged in each of these sessions.

FWIW: Some of you are wondering how I managed as a public speaker/educator - the reality is that a many speakers are introverts who love the stage because they are dealing with their material and presentation not so much with the individuals in the audience.

April 4, 2020 at 07:18 PM · Thank you Laurie for posting this. I found it helpful to hear that you are going through the same thing that I am. Someone I know that uses zoom calls it “Zoom fatigue”.

Thanks to everyone else that chimed in too.

Jeannie D.

April 5, 2020 at 10:23 PM · Great article as ever from this blog. I have found zoom teaching a revelation. It has refined my teaching so far, requiring me to pay attention to the musical basics of rhythm, pulse and pitch. I would tend to be a "dog with a bone" re technique and the distancing requires the student to take more control and responsibility.

Connie G

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