Managing Back-to-School Expectations During a Pandemic

August 25, 2020, 3:46 PM · It's back-to-school time for teachers, students and parents, and this year - the year of COVID 19 - is certainly like no other.

school online

First of all, many students aren't physically going "back to school" - they remain at home, connected to school mostly by the Internet. For those whose schools are offering hybrid or in-person classes this fall, the situation still hinges on a precarious set of conditions: that every student, teacher and administrator will strictly follow hygiene, masking and distancing rules, and that a highly contagious virus doesn't take hold in the school community. If it does, those schools may well revert to all-online learning.

The whole situation puts to test our long-held expectations about school and education, which clash in many ways with the current reality. For example, children need their peers; they need to meet certain academic milestones every year - if they don't, they might be "left behind." In the United States particularly, a culture of competition exists for children, culminating in those college acceptance letters (or not!)

This year, even college is bound to disappoint. While many college students have opted to stay at home; others are showing up in person, often to find that the promised "in-person" classes have mostly switched to online. At many campuses, outbreaks of the virus are already well under way.

Of course, a college student can take a "gap year," but taking a "gap year" for fifth grade is not really an option. For elementary and high school students, they must attain their education within a system where almost all traditions have been severely disrupted, from the classroom curriculum to the lunchroom and playground, community fundraisers and events, back-to-school night celebrations, performances, athletic competitions and more.

For teachers, this has meant reinventing their lessons to fit an online platform and students learning from home. Every grade and academic subject has its challenges in this regard: how do you handle a group of six-year-olds online? A high school chemistry course? A beginning reading class? A student with a bad Internet connection?

For students, in order to connect with this kind of education they must have a device, a place at home to study, good Internet bandwidth, and parents who have not gone off the deep end, after six months of nonstop parenthood and the likelihood that they are facing financial and job strains of their own. Certainly not every home has equal access.

So how do we make the best of this situation?

First, it's important to note that many people and educational institutions have accepted the situation with grace, invention, creativity and a determination to make things work within our current limitations, regrettable though they may be. Because at this point, fighting reality will not help. Accepting the current limitations and looking for the possibilities will.

The good news is this: online education can work - it can even work well. As a violin teacher, I found the adjustment period to be rather difficult. But after five months, my students are continuing to progress, and every day we find new ways to make it work. For example, one student started recording the duet parts for her Doflein method studies, so that she can play them back on the phone and practice them as duets. Great idea, and it's improving her reading. Instead of trying to play duets with each other every week, she gives me a performance, with cell phone. There's a win!

This fall, a number of my students report being happy to be back at their regular schools, "even though it's online." One student even reported being a little happier, without the mania of driving all over the place. Others tell me that their classes are better organized than they were last spring, much to their relief.

For this academic year, consider expanding your definition of progress and success. It might not be about "straight As" or getting to the highest-possible level - it might be more about staying motivated to learn, finding creative solutions, finding a new area of interest, and staying mentally and physically healthy.

And if you aren't seeing as much progress, don't despair, but find ways to stay motivated. A wise teaching mentor once told me, "If your student isn't moving forward, trying going sideways for a while." In other words, make progress by doing new assignments and activities at the current level instead of trying to move up to something more difficult.

By reinforcing lessons already learned, students can solidify their foundation, which will allow progress when they are ready. Examples: If it's not working to level up to a new reading level, then read a lot of stories at the current level. In violin, if a student is stuck on the Minuets in Suzuki Book 1, try playing five other tunes at that same level before moving on to something harder. "Going sideways" allows for progress within familiar territory - something that might work well for students who are having trouble during difficult times.

That said, many students will thrive and move forward - maybe even at a faster pace than before. They may want to supplement what they are doing with even more classes. (Or, they may practice their instrument more than ever - one can hope!)

Before the pandemic, we'd devised a lot of specific ways to measure a student's progress: the steady stream of graded assignments, the report card, attendance and participation, awards and certificates, etc.. Those measures may not apply to the current situation, or they may apply in a different way. But remember, at its heart, education is not about measuring, comparing students with each other or ticking off boxes; it is about learning. Do whatever helps motivate yourself, your kids and your students, and go easy on the comparisons. Flexibility, creativity, invention and maintaining a positive outlook - these are what will help us the most in continuing to education our children.

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August 26, 2020 at 03:29 AM · While I will very likely be resuming in-person schooling (I'm not in the US but still), I've taken this opportunity to relax and engage in hobbies that interest me (includes practicing!). While education will be different, I want to take this time to work on life skills and other areas of interest that I can pursue at home like reading novels, coposing, and learning about computers and technology.

August 26, 2020 at 09:29 PM · This is great advice even for those of us who don't take formal lessons but are trying to move forward in our playing. I love the "sideways" idea. Just keep moving! Thanks, Laurie!

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