Arts Education in the Pandemic: How N.C. Teachers are Reimagining Their Work

North Carolina Arts Council

Monday, September 14, 2020

We knew this school year was going to be different. In July, five months after schools closed early to stop the spread of COVID-19, Governor Cooper announced that K–12 schools would reopen in August with social distancing plans in place. Across the state, school districts battened down the hatches, rallied their troops, and prepared for a school year destined to be defined by the pandemic.

Last month, the school year began with more questions than answers. Could schools hold in-person classes safely? Could they guarantee that every student had the tools and skills they needed to attend school remotely? Could they ensure that remote learning wouldn’t augment the disparities that impact student achievement in a typical school year? How would the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic and virtual learning impact the social development and well-being of students? And how would the teachers — who already give so much of themselves to their work — fare?

To observe National Arts in Education Week, we asked a group of arts educators to reflect on the triumphs and challenges of teaching the arts this year. Their responses exemplify the dedication and ingenuity of North Carolina’s arts teachers and give us a deeper understanding of why arts instruction is critically important during this time of struggle.

We kick this series off with two interviews with arts educators at Northwest School of the Arts, in Charlotte. We will publish new installments of this series on our blog all week.

Chandra McCloud-Glover
Dance Educator at Northwest School of the Arts

You’ve shared an image that captures what your work “looks like” right now. Tell us what’s going on in this picture. 

This photo says a lot. I call it, " on." Yes, I am teaching ballet to students through a computer without a barre, without feeling the "community" in the traditional sense. But I smile through it all, sometimes to keep from feeling down, but mostly because my students genuinely make me happy. I miss being in the same room with them, feeling their energy, hearing their random stories, their laughter, their tears, their silence. I miss learning from one another and dancing collectively. But I am in a new space that my husband created for the family to enjoy, and it comes complete with a dance floor and padding that absorbs shock when I jump! And I am wearing a tunic as an homage to the great Martha Graham as part of our Teacher Spirit Week. Even though I am teaching alone and dancing alone, it is still great to be part of a team and do fun little things like Teacher Spirit Week. Teaching virtually is difficult, time consuming, and more stressful than teaching in person. But this is my new normal, and I have become more creative than ever. I must press on.

Teaching virtually is difficult, time consuming, and more stressful than teaching in person. But this is my new normal, and I have become more creative than ever. I must press on.

Walk us through a day in the life of your job right now.

My day begins with a brisk run-walk around my neighborhood with motivational talks from Peloton instructors. That always gives me a little nugget of knowledge I can share with my students. I check my email, make a to-do list, log on to Zoom, and teach from 9:15 – 4:15, with a couple of breaks. During breaks, I may text my department, colleagues, and dance friends, answer emails, choreograph, catch up on grading, or just breathe for a second. I end my day reviewing and reflecting for the next day. Sundays and a portion of Saturdays are dedicated to actually catching up on grades and creating and uploading modules for the upcoming week.

What’s been most rewarding this year? 

The most rewarding thing is always seeing growth, whether it is growth in technique, artistry, or maturity. My Ballet 8 students set a goal of doing more combinations in the center and across the floor. They knew that in order to do that, they had to focus in class more and practice outside of class more. I saw them work toward that goal last week when they made it to the center. Usually, I have to keep students at the barre for two weeks, meeting every other day. But they got in the center after having only three classes. And they did that, because they are retaining the combinations, retaining and applying corrections, and practicing outside of class. It was very rewarding to see.

What’s been most challenging about teaching this year? What is helping you stay motivated and hopeful? 

Being alone is the most challenging, as well as not having clear and consistent direction. I have to be my own "hype woman" a lot and give them the energy I want to see through a screen. But their smiles, laughter, and dedicated intention keep me motivated. My colleagues inside and outside of my school keep me motivated and hopeful, as well. We are constantly talking on Microsoft Teams, through group texts, and through Zooms, and we're helping one another more. It really feels like I have multiple families and a strong support system.

What has the pandemic taught you about the value of arts education? 

So many creatives are being born out of this pandemic. I have never seen so many companies, organizations, and groups be more imaginative with what the workplace should look like or be more understanding of what "family" means or be more outspoken when it comes to disparities. People aren't just using "diversity" as a catchphrase anymore. They are discussing disparities and how to eliminate or lessen them. People are reimagining what school looks like and are tapping into other skills (“social emotional learning”) besides academics. This is what arts education is all about; it is about reimagining, thinking critically and creatively, including all. We teach our students to be flexible, resilient, dependable, and inclusive. Education can't exist without arts education.

Bryan Wilson
Visual Arts Educator at Northwest School of the Arts

You’ve shared an image that captures what your work “looks like” right now. Tell us what’s going on in this picture. 

In that particular photo, I am mirroring my iPad's screen through Zoom, which is the way I am most comfortable doing demonstrations. I was in the middle of introducing my students to "sight-size method" which is a drawing process where you take measurements of a subject and "translate" (as in geometry) them to your drawing. You essentially end up copying the referenced subject at a 1:1 ratio. Its a bit tedious but helps ensure accuracy and a sharper eye regarding proportion.

Walk us through a day in the life right now.

I start my day a little before school officially starts by pulling up all my classes in Canvas and ensuring that links and assignments are what I need them to be. I take attendance, which takes approximately six minutes (there are inevitably some stragglers), and then I address any announcements. I lecture/demonstrate for about 20–25 minutes, we do a quick recap to make sure all the students are on the same page, and then I let them off Zoom to finish classwork or begin homework.

What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching this year? 

A day without tech hiccups. Besides that, being in a position where I have a sense that I am confident in what I have planned for the next few days.

What has this year taught you about arts education? 

There is so much more to arts education than learning to produce something beautiful. We are in a position to respond to and document what is happening now around the world. It is through the arts that people are able to escape, challenge mindsets, build bridges between communities, and find healing and even purpose. The arts have been a lifeline to many during this time of isolation.