New Frontiers: Teachers Say the Pandemic is Redefining Arts Education

North Carolina Arts Council
Friday, September 18, 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. 

Our series concludes with interviews with arts educators from Swift Creek Elementary in Raleigh and Rockingham Middle School in Rockingham.


Jazzmone Sutton
Music Educator at Swift Creek Elementary
Raleigh

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

This year is about trying our best with flexibility. I currently work from home and ten minutes before my first kindergarten class this year, my internet went out. The only spot to get a good signal from my phone, which I was using as a Hotspot, was outside in the parking lot. It wasn’t ideal teaching in the August afternoon heat in a parking lot to a class of kindergarteners who were attending their first music class. However, it was fun, and we got it done. We spent our time together laughing and learning, just as it should have been.        

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

A typical workday begins with communication between students, families, and staff via Google meets or email. When my live classes start, I teach 20-minute live lessons until the end of the day. Between my classes, I answer questions, problem-solve, or build relationships with students. At the end of the day, I check student work and communicate with families, staff, and students. 

What’s most rewarding about teaching this year? 

The most rewarding part is spending time with my students. They bring such joy and hope with them to music class. Despite the distance of online learning, my students are overcoming so many obstacles to be active in music class. 

A lot of my students have to overcome the challenge of learning in changing environments. Many come to music class from busy daycares, centers, and moving cars.

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

A lot of my students have to overcome the challenge of learning in changing environments. Many join music class from busy daycare centers and moving cars. I’ve also had some come online from a local fast-food restaurant and outside of the U.S. There are no instruments to play or spaces to dance, and singing can often distract others in their environment. It is hard for an eight-year-old to focus on a square of their teacher singing and dancing on the computer while everyone around them is talking and playing.

Yet, my students show up, assess their surroundings, and make the best choices for their learning environment. I am amazed at how committed they are to actively participate in music, no matter their circumstances. I am honored to be their music teacher. They bring such joy and hope to class.

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

During this pandemic, I am reminded how arts and music education brings a greater sense of life and connection to people. It is why my students show up to class each day with smiles on their faces despite their circumstances. We bond over music and the joy that it brings. I could not have canceled music class the day my internet went out, because we all would have missed out on the gift that is making music together. We have laughed, sung, and even danced from our folding chairs, houses, daycares, and moving cars. Music has connected us because that is what music does.


Ashley Lupfer
Visual Arts Educator at Rockingham Middle School
Rockingham

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

Teaching 100 percent virtually with 100 percent smiles. The second I let technology frustrate me, it impacts the students, too. Showing myself and my students grace is a must.

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

Every day consists of meeting my students virtually at our scheduled class time, followed by calling to check on each student I haven't heard from. After school I work on our virtual art club, prepare learning activities, assist colleagues, and help students with new tools. Students have been doing a great job articulating their needs at the middle-school level.

What’s been most rewarding about teaching this year? 

Sometimes the "student view" online is a bit different from what I can see on my end, so I have had several students volunteer to explain the student side of the Canvas platform we are using. Students have done a great job exhibiting leadership during this time.

The pandemic has exposed the vastness of what an effective arts education can look like.

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

Much of what art educators do with students is tangible, so I have felt very "out of reach." I miss buzzing around a classroom filled with students discovering, celebrating, getting frustrated, and just really learning together. I think there are ways to get closer to that feeling in a virtual setting, which I am excited to try out. I am focusing on giving individualized feedback to ensure that those personal discussions about student learning are not lost.

In your words, what has the pandemic taught you about the value of arts education? 

The pandemic has exposed the vastness of what an effective arts education can look like. There is so much that falls within the scope of arts education, and the possibilities can be overwhelming! Learning how to prioritize content and provide diverse learning experiences has helped me see where I can be more flexible and create as many choices for my students as possible. Accepting that things will be different, but that they can also take some exciting turns, has really helped me move forward with a positive mindset.