Zoom and other video conferencing applications are incredible, powerful tools, and I couldn’t be more grateful for them right now. Unfortunately, they have drawbacks. Now more than ever, it’s important to make sure we’re making space in lessons to build trust with our students, especially those who have only ever known us on a screen. But just how do we do that?
Problem: No Nuance
In a traditional lesson, you sit face-to-face, sans mask, with your student. You can see each other’s body language and clearly hear each other’s tone of voice. Over video chat, we get a flat version of the person we’re talking to and audio that isn’t great, even in the best of circumstances.
This loss of nuance makes it hard to know what a student may be feeling. You may not be able to see the bouncing leg from nervousness overplaying something. They may mistake you looking at their image on your screen for you not paying attention to them. You may mistake eyes darting to a distraction in their room as lack of focus. They may mistake you laughing at your dog being a goofus as you laughing at them. You may mistake shyness for boredom, and the list goes on.
Solution: Stop, Collaborate, and Listen
During the summer I had the opportunity to have a brief chat with Jen Oleniczak Brown, founder of The Engaging Educator. She’s an educator with a passion for helping people find their confidence when it comes to communicating. She gave me two big nuggets of wisdom that have come in handy almost every lesson I’ve taught.
First, she said to let students know what’s going on. If you step away to grab a pencil, take a sip of water, or if you go on mute, or need to stop your video share for a few seconds, tell them. This lets them know that you’re still paying attention to them, and that you respect them enough to let them know that.
Second, do what you can to make learning a collaborative experience, one in which they can take ownership. It’s true we may miss things in virtual that we would spot in a face-to-face setting, but the upside is that it gives us the opportunity to help students learn to self-assess. When offering feedback on work done, Jen said to ask questions and leave room for yourself to be wrong. Here’s a personal example:
A student was singing a passage, and I thought I heard tension. I told her what I thought I heard and asked if it was because she hadn’t gotten a good breath before singing that section. She said no, that her breath had felt adequate, but her placement wasn’t where she wanted it to be. She sang it again, adjusting her placement, and the tension went away. Had I not allowed her the room to tell me what was going on, I would have been focusing on the wrong thing.
Problem: Screen Fatigue
While millennials and younger are pretty adept at building relationships online (RIP MySpace), there is a big difference between choosing to interact with someone in a virtual space, and having to do it out of necessity. Most of the students I work with are hopping on lessons after a full day of e-learning. Any social interaction they get to have may also be on a screen. To put it bluntly: they’ve been in front of screens all. dang. day.
Solution: Be Flexible
I give students permission to mute themselves or turn off their camera or mute their mic if they’d feel more comfortable working something out for the first time, or to move around the room if it helps them. This can be a scary thing to do, because you can’t control it. In my experience, though, students don’t abuse this. They appreciate it and use it to improve their work. It’s yet another opportunity for me to show them I trust them and I respect their needs.
I also try to make sure we have at least one “for fun” piece in rotation at any given time. Usually, I let the student have some say on what it is. Is it always “high art”? No. Sometimes it’s meme music. Does it keep them engaged and give them something that’s easy to succeed with? Yes. If I get through this pandemic with my students all still loving music and playing regularly, then I will consider that a pretty big win.
Problem: Too Many Variables
If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that there are a lot of things that are out of our control. We’ve all felt that, our students included. Humans of all ages can feel stressed, tired, scared. These external factors can set a student on edge, and make it more difficult to cultivate a space in which they feel relaxed and trusting.
Solution: Routine, Routine, Routine
In a normal lesson, there’s a natural rhythm to things. Students come into the room, talk about their day, maybe spend some time doing warm-up and technique or go through rep, and so on. While we can’t duplicate that rhythm, we can do our best to have a normal, predictable structure to the lesson time (even if it runs 10 minutes late because the Zoom link won’t open properly).
For some of your students, their lessons may be the one thing that feels predictable from week to week. Do what you can to keep lesson times and expectations consistent. While that doesn’t mean doing the exact same thing for each lesson, it does mean that there are things you can do at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of a lesson.
I usually start by asking the student about their day or week, maybe mentioning specific things they had brought up in the last lesson (going camping with family or having a big test), or if the student is less talkative I may tell them about something I saw or heard that I thought they might like. Then we proceed with regular lesson business. I usually wrap up by either thanking them for their work, asking if they have any questions and wishing them a good rest of their day. That consistency can seem boring to us as teachers, but it provides stability and clarity. We all need a little bit of that right now.
Teaching virtually is challenging. Really challenging. That doesn’t mean that we have to let the negatives of it override the positive experience of making and learning music together. We may have to change the way we think about things, how we approach the nuts and bolts of teaching. With compassion, respect, and routine, we can create an environment in which our students feel comfortable, learn something, and hopefully have a little fun along the way.