Lessons Learned Teaching during a Pandemic
By NAfME Member Suzanne N. Hall
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Music Educators Journal.
I have dabbled in developing an online course in my prior academic appointment, and the process took months of planning, with the outcome being a hybrid course for elementary educators on how to incorporate music in the classroom. The challenge I faced was how to convert hands-on music activities into a tangible experience virtually. To provide both experiential music experiences in person and additional knowledge-building activities online, I decided that hybrid instruction was my best option.
Fast-forward to a time many years later when I had to put those same skills to use but with a limited amount of time to prepare and no option to include the experiential learning that my music majors were required to do to meet the competencies for the course. It was challenging to pivot instruction during a pandemic, and researching best practices did not provide much hope, since creating a practical online course does not happen overnight.
Additionally, COVID-19 was not the only thing that we were navigating. There was ongoing racial and political conflict throughout the United States to which our students were not immune, and neither was I. However, a book I read early in my teaching career called The First Days of Teaching“ gave me comfort. Authors Harry Wong and Rosemary Wong describe four teaching stages—fantasy, survival, mastery, and impact. The past few years have seen many educators return to the survival stage after being forced to change in-person instruction into asynchronous online learning without a guide about how to teach during a pandemic. Nevertheless, I also knew that there was also a way out just as quickly as I got thrown into the survival stage. Although we are still in the era of shifting teaching realities, implementing the following strategies carried me through and are still working for me today.
Here are five tips I learned while navigating teaching during a pandemic:
- Check in with students. Check-ins are perhaps the most important thing to do for yourself and your students. Consider spending time in class to check in with your students. Surveying student needs in the new normal will help to restructure your course to meet course objectives with that in mind. Among the things I incorporated into my courses is a monthly check-in Google form that asked students to provide information about how they were managing and how I could provide support in the course. By completing the form, students could share confidentially. It can serve as a way for students who may want to share but do not feel comfortable divulging information verbally in class.
- Maintain a level of normalcy that you can control. For my students, consistency was essential in building a sense of normalcy. Each day I displayed a visual agenda that outlined the scheduled activities for the day and the upcoming assignments due the following week. Students found these reminders helpful, and an everyday routine helped establish a sense of stability.
- Modify with meaningful intention. Incorporate the principles of Universal Design for Learning to diversify how you present information and ways for students to express their understanding. For me, my students shifted to remote learning the week they were supposed to teach lessons at a school. Although this was a significant aspect of the course, I changed the objective to develop online learning lessons. It still met the course outcomes and made the assignment meaningful and relevant to what was going on. I also encouraged them to embed their real-life experiences within assignments to promote engagement and critical thinking. A group of students had to teach a kindergarten class where students could only sit and stand due to social distancing—and no singing! Their collaborative efforts to rethink instruction resulted in them creating a lesson on timbre using Peter and the Wolf that was still engaging, meaningful, and musical.
- Include opportunities for students to connect with you and each other. The decline in social interaction that social media had created before the pandemic was exacerbated by isolation due to quarantine and social distancing. Consequently, it is imperative for successful learning and teaching to cultivate peer interaction and teacher-student relationships. Offer more opportunities for group projects or partner assignments to promote social engagement. I also started every class with music playing as my students entered the classroom (whether in-person or online) using a broad range of playlists. One of my students shared that his favorite artist was Roy Hargrove. After our conversation, I immediately researched to learn more about Hargrove and used the Hargrove playlist on Spotify to open the class the next day. We learn as much from our students as they learn from us, underscoring the importance of such relationships. Also, do take a moment to smile and laugh with your students, and continue to congratulate them every time they persevere each day.
“We learn as much from our students as they learn from us, underscoring the importance of such relationships.”
- Engage in self-care. I made a point to say this to my students every day, showed visuals of various forms of well-being practices, and asked students to share what they were doing to take care of themselves emotionally, socially, physically, mentally, and spiritually. However, I never asked myself those same questions and soon became overwhelmed. As educators, it is natural for us to be caretakers of others, but neglecting our well-being leads to unhealthy practices and burnout. Engage in self-care daily. Find time to do something that brings you joy and surround yourself with positive people. Chris Bailey, author of How to Train Your Brain, contends that taking even five minutes out of your day to engage in meditative practices is beneficial for one’s well-being. I incorporated the five-minute meditation into my daily practice and connected with a colleague during the pandemic for a “virtual” coffee chat. Now we intentionally meet once every semester via Zoom. If you are struggling for a place to start, Tina Boogren’s 180 Days of Self-Care for Busy Educators is an excellent resource to begin your journey to complete wellness.
Finally, I used some tools from online instruction that worked for me in person. After using the chat feature in Zoom, I applied that same concept during class. As we engaged in discussions, I opened a Google Doc that served as the “chat.” Students were encouraged to leave comments in the chat as we dialogued. To my surprise, the chat was very active, and by the end of the semester, the students were able to take away a twelve-page document filled with reflections, comments, and responses to prompts from the semester. This was incredibly helpful for students who rarely spoke up in class and ensured everyone could contribute. I also converted Zoom “breakout rooms” into small-group meetings for chapter conversations led by student facilitators. During class, students met in small groups to discuss points of the chapter that resonated with them. Each group could choose where to casually chat in the building (i.e., school lounge, eatery, or outside) where they felt most comfortable. The small group chats were extremely popular with the students, and they looked forward to that part of the course the most.
These past couple of years have reminded me that educators are creative, resourceful, and will adapt to what lies ahead to provide the best instruction and classroom environment for our students. No one can say when we will return to pre-pandemic instruction. We may never return, but I appreciate the time to expand and reflect on my pedagogy.
 Harry Wong and Rosemary Wong, The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher (Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications, 1998).
2 Don Glass, Anne Meyer, and David H. Rose, “Universal Design for Learning and the Arts,” Harvard Educational Review 83, no. 1 (Spring, 2013): 98–119, 266, 270, 272.
3 Jane Brumfield Montero, “Creating Student Relationships: From “Best Practices” to “Next Practices” in a Virtual Classroom,” Art Education 74, no. 6 (2021): 13–18, DOI: 10.1080/00043125.2021.1954474; Marion Scherzinger, Marion and Alexander Wettstein, “Classroom Disruptions, the Teacher–Student Relationship and Classroom Management from the Perspective of Teachers, Students and External Observers: A Multimethod Approach,” Learning Environments Research 22, no. 1 (04, 2019): 101–16. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10984-018-9269-x.
4 Chris Bailey, How to Train Your Brain: Exploring the Productivity Benefits of Meditation (Newark, NJ: Audible Originals, 2021), eBook.
5 Tina Boogren, 180 Days of Self-Care for Busy Educators (Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2020).
About the author:
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.
May 24, 2022. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)