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The Great Return – Modern Band Educators Reflect on the Resumption of In-Person Learning

Braeden Henderson • August 2021Modern Band • August 13, 2021

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the institution of remote learning set in motion a frantic adjustment for most music educators, as they adapted to acquire new skills to replicate their classrooms in an online environment. As much as that sudden shift represented a system shock for music education, th impending return to in-person learning after a long period of absence is certain to do the same. As students acclimate to the presence of peers and the change of setting, restrictions evolve, ideologies clash, and new challenges are sure to emerge. I wanted to find out how modern band educators from across various teaching situations felt about this transition.

Far and away, the biggest challenges reported by teachers related to students’ mental health, behavior, and social skills. “It will be 18-months since some students have been in an actual school setting. They will have to relearn things such as how to sit in class all day, follow rules and procedures, eat in a cafeteria, walk down a crowded hallway, and most importantly, accept and get along with other students,” says Kenneth Murphy, an elementary school modern band teacher in Queens, NY. Lauren Maxwell, of Denver, CO reports, “the experiences of students have been vastly different from person to person over the past year and a half.” Perhaps the most challenging gap to address is students who have been absent from school participation entirely during the pandemic. “There students will be way behind their peers because they didn’t participate in remote learning. Ensuring that they will feel successful will be a challenge,” explains Kris Gilbert, who teaches in Endwell, NY.

In order to address these issues, many teachers reported they are anticipating spending the first part of the year focused purely on social emotional learning, reestablishing students’ boundaries, trust, sense of community, and healthy means of communication—before addressing music at all. “Music teachers have always been experts in social emotional learning, since it’s inherent to what we do. Our students and colleagues are going to need us more than ever next year as we all process the trauma that all humans have endured,” says Martha Nelson of Queens, NY.

Other major challenges related to the resumption of in-person learning are the still-looming questions many teachers are facing with regard to pandemic safety guidelines. “[I have received] no guidance yet from state or district on what COVID precautions will be [in place] for elementary general music” reports Suzanne Kiflawi, an elementary school teacher from Lynnwood, WA. “I’m very much looking forward to in-person learning, but I wish I had any idea of what restrictions I’ll be dealing with so I can really start planning. How do I help students get comfortable with the rules…if I don’t have a chance to get comfortable with [them] myself?” wonders Talyn Wong, a middle school modern band teacher in Sacramento, CA, who also expressed frustration with the compounding layers of protocols: “Concurrent, and outdoors, and masks, and extra distance is unsustainable. Something has got to give.” Beyond that, there’s the natural skill gap that has arisen from the lack of access to instruments for students learning from home over the last year and a half. “I am concerned that our program took such a drastic hit that it will take years to get it back to what it once was,” explains Gilbert.

Despite all these concerns, many teachers are feeling positive about this change, and for good reason. Myriad well-reported benefits of in-person schooling are sure to improve students’ comprehension, social competencies, emotional wellbeing, and other positive outcomes associated with music education, even if the initial learning curve is steep. Additionally, there’s the relative ease of in-person learning to consider: since high-quality, synchronous online music-making is still inaccessible for most teachers and students, not having to deal with latency, connectivity, and sound issues represents a major burden lifted from many teachers’ shoulders. When asked what she’s looking forward to, Nelson says “Being able to play in an ensemble all at once and stay on the beat. The fact that barriers to entry are lower (no tech issues/access to battle) so the playing field is more equitable,” whereas Heika Smith of Dallas, TX, whose school instituted a hybrid model, requiring her to teach remote and in-person students simultaneously, says “Not having to teach two different ways at the same time.” Tony Corallo, a teacher in San Pedro, CA says “… kids learn better in a classroom environment. There are so many things that we couldn’t do virtually.” High school modern band teacher David Miller of Burlington, CT, whose school has been mostly in-person since October, sees remote learning skills students have gained as an advantage, and anticipates “finding ways to continue to blend some of the new technologies we have explored into daily instruction in the classroom.”

As with most things in education, support from the school community — parents, administrators, and fellow faculty — will no doubt remain critical in fostering a successful transition back into the music classroom. Many teachers expressed gratitude toward the infrastructure that surrounds their modern band programs and advised leaning on these systems to facilitate the transition back to remote learning. “I am lucky to work for a school district in a community that values music education. I feel confident no matter what the circumstances are, our students will be supported,” says Brenda Haskell, a middle school teacher in Lompoc, CA.

Though situations vary across the country. One thing is certain: this back-to-school season will prove a pivotal for music students around the world, and modern band educators are uniquely equipped to address their needs. Time will tell what long-term impacts of this transition will be on schools, but, working through an unprecedented collision of challenges, pressures, and advantages, teachers are already leaning in to prepare for success.

Braeden Henderson is the senior manager of teacher community for music education-focused nonprofit Little Kids Rock.

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