What's At Stake In 2020? Band Instructor Wants Leaders Who Support Teachers' Dignity And Safety
Stone Wang knew his first year as a teacher would be difficult, but he never could have predicted the added challenge of teaching during a pandemic.
On a typical day as the assistant band director at Walsh Middle School, Wang teaches about 30% of his students in person. He alternates his gaze between the students at socially distanced desks in front of him and on a computer screen.
“Caden, Thomas, make sure your cameras are on,” he says to his virtual class. His in-person students wait patiently while he asks the students on camera to position themselves so he can see them and their instruments. These students’ parents have opted to keep their children at home – an option the Round Rock Independent School District gives all families during the coronavirus pandemic.
With his virtual class muted, Wang begins the day’s lesson.
When COVID-19 began to spread in Texas in the spring, Wang’s final semester of student teaching at UT Austin was cut short. He graduated as the economy worsened, looking for a job in the competitive world of Texas music education. When he secured a position at Walsh Middle School, he felt grateful and excited to teach in a rigorous band program. But as the summer wore on without consistent COVID regulations or a plan for how educators would return to teaching in the fall, he began to worry about safety.
“It’s not that I'm not trying to work, because I love teaching,” Wang says. “I love positively affecting kids.”
However, two months into school, he says he feels spread thin with no sign of relief on the horizon. “I feel like my life does not matter in the eyes of the people we elect to take care of us,” he says. “I don’t feel dignified, and I don’t feel entirely safe.”
For the first weeks of the school year, playing instruments in the classroom was not allowed. In-person students listened to instruction and waited until they returned home to pick up their instruments. For virtual learners, unstable internet connection and poor sound quality made online learning equally difficult.
“Several students have dropped out of band in the first six weeks,” Wang says.
To give the usual feedback that band class requires, he asks students to make videos so he can provide proper assessment at home. “That takes a lot out of them,” he says. “Some of these kids are close to tears because making a video is actually really stressful on an instrument that they've never held before.”
Wang also creates an online catalog of high-quality videos for his students to watch at home so he can properly convey concepts such as tone.
“I’m essentially doing double the work,” he says. “I plan out my weeks and I teach, and then I go home and I make videos.”
In mid-October, band students were allowed to start playing their instruments in person. To mitigate risks, students use musician masks – masks with slits cut through them where a reed can fit – and bell covers, which are pieces of synthetic cloth that cover instruments where air is released. Still, Wang questions the safety of such protocols.
“We're constantly blowing our air through an instrument,” he says. “This is a lot of breathing. And there are not enough studies to show what is actually effective. If one of my children here were to contract COVID, that would weigh so heavily on me.”
This election cycle, he hopes for elected officials who will prioritize the dignity of American workers – especially educators – and recognize the strain the current education model is putting on teachers, students and their families. He and his fellow teachers do not have the energy to solve the situation themselves.
“The people that are here teaching ... we are in the trenches trying to make great experiences for kids,” Wang says. “And I hope that with these elections, we can elect officials that will use their own capacity to solve these problems.”
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