Teaching middle school orchestra is often about small actions for Madeline Horrell: moving a student’s pinky ever so slightly, quickly tuning a violin, grabbing a cello to replace a broken string.
But the magic of playing as a group is that once the students start a piece together, they make each other better.
“When we’re usually playing together, we’re reacting off of each other,” said Horrell, who teaches at Kealing Middle School. “You’re hearing something and playing along or you’re adjusting and listening.”
That’s all gone away since she’s been teaching over Zoom. The orchestra students log on for class and immediately mute themselves because the lag online is too much. Horrell instructs them to play a warmup or a song, but everyone in the class can only hear themselves.
“We’re still figuring out how can we do all of this over Zoom,” she said.
Starting Monday, though, she faces a new challenge: teaching students online and in person.
Because of state rules, the Austin Independent School District must start allowing students who want to come back to campus to be there. Students are being phased in by class and needs, and buildings can be at no more than 25% capicity.
A week ago, Horrell didn't know how to plan for today.
“I really don’t know what [Monday] is gonna look like,” she said last week. “And we’re just gonna try and be prepared for whatever, based on what we know now.”
She didn’t know a whole lot. Students who come back will stay in a “pod” – essentially a homeroom they never leave. All classes will still be taught virtually. So, in a classroom, every student will be on a computer taking a different class. The teacher monitoring the group, meanwhile, will be instructing his or her own class.
But that's very difficult for an orchestra teacher. When everyone is virtual, Horrell can play her instrument to model how something should sound. If she is monitoring a classroom with a group of students doing other work, she can’t play. Students who come back also can’t play if other students are working.
Also, there was inconsistency from the district. Last week, superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said students could switch classes. She quickly changed her mind, though, after teachers pushed back.
A week before in-person learning was to start, many teachers who applied for a medical accommodation to teach from home hadn’t even heard yet if their requests were approved.
“It’s been really stressful,” Horrell said. “You have all these questions, but you’re not even really sure if you should ask, because you feel like the person you ask isn’t gonna really know, either. Everybody’s just doing their best and trying to figure this stuff out. But it creates a space where I don’t know what’s happening.”
Andrea Yz, a bilingual special education teacher at Sunset Valley Elementary School, is in a similar position. In a typical school year, she'd spend her days with students from different grades and classrooms. She often pulled a student out of class or sat with them in the general education class. This doesn’t translate to Zoom very easily, but she also doesn’t know how it will look in person during a pandemic.
“I think a lot of teachers are feeling like they’re just not 100% sure what it’s gonna look like,” Yz said.
Yz said providing special education services virtually has been hard. Every student has a different plan to address their needs. Before the pandemic, she worked with students in different ways, depending on what she thought would help them best: working in small groups, working one on one, or splitting up the time throughout the day.
None of that is easy on Zoom.
“At the forefront of every decision I think we make ... we have to think about what’s best for the kid," Yz said. "And I struggle with asking a second-grader to be online for six hours straight."
The idea of having students both online and in the school building only adds to her stress. Yz said special education is much better face to face, but she doesn’t want students who come back to get better services than the students online.
She’s also nervous about the safety of walking around the school building and being in multiple classrooms. So, neither scenario feels great for her or her students.
“To then juggle that face to face and virtually, with no magical extra five hours in the week or additional staffing, it provides a ton of challenges,” she said.
The idea of online and in-person learning is stressing out Horrell, as well. She said she spent all summer trying to figure out how to teach orchestra online, and now she has to figure out how to accommodate students who return to school.
“It’s like, we get to do this and we also have to deal with kids being in the building,” she said. “It seems crazy. It seems we’ve spent all this time figuring this out and for it to change, that’s tough.”
Horrell used to teach in Houston, where students have been back in the classroom for a few weeks. She said her friends there told her it’s a nightmare trying to teach students in two very different situations.
“I think this is the first time since [my first year] that I've really thought, ‘How long am I going to stay in this career?’” she said, recounting how overwhelmed she had felt before falling in love with teaching. “It’s not only the weekends and the late hours, it’s also sort of just not feeling appreciated in an industry. It feels like the state and government in general doesn’t want to value us.”
Yz is also feeling exhausted by what is being asked of teachers. She said teaching online and in person is two separate jobs, and without additional support or guidance it will be hard to succeed.
“It feels, very often, impossible,” she said. “That’s not something that I've really ever felt as a teacher. I’ve always felt like where there’s a will there’s a way, and we’re going to make it work. It feels like we’re being stretched so thin that we’re just gonna break. I don’t know how much we can hold."
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