In this post, Dr. George Hess discusses the real reasons we struggled to close out the year. 

As you approach the end of this school year, many of you have come to the conclusion that online learning doesn’t work. It’s understandable; your entire year has been disrupted. You haven’t been able to do much of what you had planned for the last part of the school year. No rehearsals, no concerts, or exams. You’ve probably learned that you can’t sing or play together over the Internet. Many of your students became increasingly disengaged and little of any real value was accomplished. 

But there’s a good reason for that. In the past few months, the entire world has been turned upside down. People are getting sick and dying, and we’ve been confined to our homes. Schools and businesses were shut down and everyone was looking for masks and toilet paper. There’s nothing normal about the current situation. 

This was an emergency and you were among the first-responders. You have to keep in mind that the primary purpose of closing schools was to keep our students and their families, and our own families safe. In my case, that’s been accomplished and I hope that’s true for all of you, too. And the reason you were asked to teach online is that your students needed you during this crisis for more than music. They needed to feel some sense of normality. 

And you provided that. With no preparation, planning, or training, you starting teaching online. You learned new technologies and spent countless extra hours to deliver activities, enrichment, and lessons to your kids. Even more importantly, you offered a connection. Of course, it wasn’t up to your usual standards. There was no way it could be. You’ve been traumatized, too, yet still gave it everything you had. 

The reason that you are frustrated has less to do with online learning and more to do with dealing with an extraordinary event for which we were unprepared. Even in normal times, online learning isn’t as easy as it sounds, so it’s no surprise that in this situation it pales in comparison to your pre-virus classroom. Instead, consider what might have happened had we returned to the classroom. Students would have been wearing masks, trying and failing to maintain social distancing, and a single cough or sneeze would have shut the entire school for two weeks. Concerts and graduations still would have ended up being canceled. Learning would have suffered and the health consequences would likely have been much worse. Through that lens, online learning isn’t that bad. 

As to what’s next, of all the possible scenarios for the coming school year, the least likely is that we will return to the way it was before the virus. There will be some things, like large ensembles, that we just won’t be able to do. There is a good chance we will be teaching online at some point next school year. Maybe right from the start, maybe some time in the middle of the term. But now with fair warning and having had a chance to learn what doesn’t work, we’ll do it better.

Online learning doesn’t have to be a poor substitute for the classroom. It is different and some training in the methods and technology might be a good idea. There are things that you won’t be able to do well, but you might be surprised that there are things that work better. For example, in my current classes, I’m finding it easier to connect with all of my students, especially the shy ones. You’ll want to develop a positive outlook toward it, otherwise, you’ll make your job that much harder. 

We can’t know for certain what the future holds, but some online learning is a good bet. Preparing materials takes time, so you’ll want to start as soon as you can. But first, take a few minutes and take a deep breath. Pat yourself on the back and know you did the best that you could and you did make a difference.

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