COVID U: Teaching in a Pandemic

“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.”

Whether it was originally said by Ginger Rogers herself, or by Faith Whittlesey, this quote has been on my mind a lot, lately. Teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic is a bit like ballroom dancing, trying to remember all of the steps, match your partner, and look like you’re having a good time in a fancy outfit, even if your feet hurt and you’re counting like crazy. It’s also a bit like a high-wire act without a safety net, except the floor is lava. Oh, and you’re also in heels on the high wire. And somebody left a window open and there’s a strong wind. And there are angry wasps for some reason…

I’m exaggerating, but maybe not as much as I wish. A COVID college feels very familiar, except with a few twists that I didn’t see coming. The students are still students; there is still a high-strung underclassman with big feelings. Someone came out to a less-than-supportive family over the summer, and is now trying to figure out how to be an adult who rents an apartment and buys the groceries, while also navigating scales, repertoire, school, and their new understanding of identity. The graduating senior is juggling two full recital programs of grad school audition rep while trying to finish classes and a senior thesis. Everyone feels a little overwhelmed sometimes, because that’s how college works sometimes, and being young can be hard.

But we’re also all in masks. We’re having lessons in large classrooms with make-shift face-coverings and little covers for the foot joints of our flutes. Rehearsals are bits and pieces of larger ensembles, rather than the whole group, and Hy-Flex classes have rotating attendance groups, so you’re all there for part of the time. The result is that everyone is a tiny bit safer, but no one is ever 100% confident they are where they’re supposed to be. We’re all trying to be a little more flexible than normal.

We’re all trying to have conversations about the nuances of Poulenc from distances of six-to-twelve feet, and we’re all obsessed—for the first time in history—with the rate of HVAC turnover in the music building. (The universal truth: in every building, it’s lower than you’d think, but the music building is always one of the worst on campus.) Students still forget to use the sign-in/out sheets for practice rooms and squabble over the one with the nice piano, the good view from the window … and the one that has had 30+ minutes for aerosols to settle. The Type-A members of my studio are still FUR-I-OUS that people won’t use the sheets properly, but they sound a little less pedantic now that sign-ins are used for room assignments in peak hours and contact tracing. Much to our mutual chagrin, their classmates are just as inconsistent about using the sheets for either purpose.

As a teacher, many of the themes are familiar. The COVID-specific twists: nobody loves the sound quality on Zoom, even in high-fidelity music mode. My office computer was built when dinosaurs roamed the earth and some of my students are Zooming from their phones, which does nothing to help the sound. Is there a music building anywhere in the world that has a strong WiFi signal? (If there is, don’t tell me.)

None of us are enamored of the way flute tone sounds behind a mask or a face shield; did we really spend all that time on Moyse exercises just to hide it behind a cotton mask? I have never loved playing outside, and lessons sometimes involve bonus cardio as we chase down music the wind has stolen away. Why does it only blow the most expensive music? (Ibert Concerto, come back here!) Or you have to pause every few minutes to swat away the tiny insects that always seem to hover around the embouchure as you try to inhale. My pads are still sticky from outdoor lessons in the end-of-summer humidity.

I miss seeing my students’ entire faces, smiling or otherwise, but I want to watch them all grow into successful professionals, so it’s a sacrifice we are all happy to make…for now.

Less expected are some of the individual hardships. The student with chronic sinus issues now needs to stay home as an abundance of precaution every time a new plant blooms. They’re online more than they’re on campus, because allergy season is never-ending in Missouri. With the window into each others’ home-lives also comes more information about how everyone lives, both good and bad. During the initial shut-down, my students didn’t have access to the practice rooms; many had nowhere to go, and for a host of reasons, couldn’t practice at home. We got by hissing over headjoints, but for some of them, it was messy. (The one positive: they have never been so happy to be back in the cramped, poorly ventilated practice-rooms as they are this fall.)

I knew students tended to use the computer labs to work on assignments, but part of me had always assumed it was a measure of convenience. Post-COVID, I’ve learned how many students at my university have insufficient technology for college, often surviving on smartphones and library computers. That didn’t change when lessons moved online, and we’ve used a phone as a Zoom portal, a metronome, a tuner, and a way to share part markings when we couldn’t be together.

I think we’re all keenly aware of how unreliable our home internet connections can be; I was shocked at how many people in my community don’t have regular, reliable access to the internet. Dorms are a petri-dish of campus illnesses under the best conditions, and now there is a potentially-lethal undertone. Because of that, many students have opted to live at home this year, which opens a Pandora’s box of family obligations: siblings too young for school or opting for virtual school, elderly relatives who need additional support, or whose health is fragile. Some students have supportive families; others are expected to do more around the house since they are physically there. I have literally rescheduled lessons to work around when the cows needed to be fed and milked, or when a younger sibling went down for a nap. Lesson times are a lot more flexible than lecture classes, but students have to juggle those demands, too.

There are always family illnesses and personal tragedies; I’m unclear if there are more, or if I’m more attuned to them. My spouse teaches at the same university and says he hasn’t noticed a change. Am I learning more about our students because I’m more open to their experience, or are they leaning more on me, as a woman, and potentially a nurturing, maternal figure? In an emergency, the human instinct is to circle the wagons and support one another, and many students appear to feel these conflicting obligations more keenly; I know that I do. More than once, I’ve come home from work completely drained from the simple act of being emotionally available. More than once, I’ve met with non-flutists from one of my lecture classes, and we’ve commiserated over pandemic-specific challenges. Their experiences are peppered with the usual freshman experiences – roommates, schedule stress, and missing home.

We all need a little extra, right now. As I search for the best way to support students as individuals—while also ushering them through a curriculum—I can definitely relate to the pull they must feel in all directions. It can be hard to feel like a good student, a good musician, and a contributing member of your family under the best circumstances. Now we’re all juggling additional pandemic problems.

I expected students to be more fragile this year, and some are. I expected students to be distracted; some are. (I’ve been surprised at the intensity of my own reactions to pandemic education, which wasn’t something I anticipated.) What I didn’t expect was how resilient some of them would become. Much of my classroom teaching involves first-semester students, and I can honestly say that I’ve never taught a more proactive, engaged bunch of students than the group that is in my classroom this semester. If they are attending a university this fall, they want their education, and it shows in their preparation, their communication, and their engagement. They learned how to be independent in an online senior year, and those skills didn’t leave them. The setbacks are bigger and harder to recover from, but their enthusiasm for the opportunity to learn is awe-inspiring. They are grateful to be where they are, and that gratitude is empowering.

I expected students to be more fragile and distracted this year, but they have also impressed me with their capacity for grace. Many are juggling competing demands from school and home including concerns about their own safety and the safety of their loved ones, but I have seen so many instances where they stop and support one another. It’s seldom something they are obligated to do, or even asked to do; they seem to be more aware that we’re all dealing with a lot, and they don’t want to see anyone left behind. In instances where I’ve publicly fumbled this semester, they have been so quick—and so sincere—in their assurances that we’re all human and all in it together that I have been genuinely touched. It’s been fascinating to me how quickly I felt bonded to them, responsible for them (and vice versa) as compared to “normal” semesters, where the process took much longer. When the coast is clear, I’ll be the first to throw away all of my masks and delete my Zoom account, but I hope to preserve the feeling of having a partner in students’ education.

Even if we are all dancing backwards and in high heels, Ginger Rogers has got nothing on the students at COVID U.

About Elizabeth Robinson

Flutist and educator Dr. Elizabeth Robinson is an active soloist, orchestral, and chamber performer. Originally from rural Tennessee, Dr. Robinson built her music career by creating many of her own opportunities. Now an accomplished performer, she defines much of her career through creating those opportunities for other musicians and contributing to the cultural growth of her region and her students. She is especially proud of her work with the Flute New Music Consortium and their most recent endeavor: the Composer Mentorship Program, as well as her work on collaborations to memorialize the upcoming Missouri Bicentennial with music for flute ensemble. Dr. Robinson can be heard performing with the Topeka Symphony, the Heartland Opera, and occasionally, in the flute/trumpet duo, Screamocity.

  1. Wonderful article, Elizabeth!! Thank you so much for sharing your empathy, wit, and beautiful writing.

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