In March 2020, spring break was extended. Olivia Vestal, now a first-year choral teacher in Durham, NC, was supposed to go to Regional NATS. Instead of performing live, she recorded a video, and remembers that was the last thing she did without a mask. After they finished, she wiped down the piano and recording equipment, and asked, “Is this good?” (referring to cleaning).
Olivia took the majority of her education courses after COVID had forced classes to change formats. She wasn’t sure how she was going to become the teacher she wanted to become when she wasn’t able to go into schools. Almost all of her courses needed an in person component. She wrote lesson plans she didn’t get to teach and had to give up classroom visits. Instead of observations in schools, she watched people on YouTube. She lost hours of classroom contact.
Her student teaching practicum in Spring 2021 began fully online. Many of these virtual days consisted of checking in with students, vocal exercises, and singing music on solfege. She would sing or call on a student to lead a passage, and students would sing with her or the student leader. All of this took time, and there were internet issues. In addition, the school mandated that she couldn’t teach for more than 45 minutes. After a couple months, school moved to cohort groups. Students would come for a week, then the next week another group would come in. The group that was not in-person attended online. Then they moved to all in-person, unless the student had chosen Virtual Academy. Until the dress rehearsal, she didn’t hear all the students sing together. As a student teacher, the only time she had to hear, evaluate, and give immediate feedback to the entire choir was during these rehearsals. She learned how to be flexible. She leaned into building community. She encouraged their exploration of music in addition to building their skills. But she missed out on training her ears, because for much of the time, she didn’t have voices in the room.
She continues to field constant change. In her classroom, she implemented risk mitigation measures that she knows will change based on public health. She has envisioned how she would set up her classroom if COVID mitigation strategies were not in place. She also has the normal first-year teacher issues to attend to: obligations that sometimes come to her late or unwritten program expectations, for example. It’s difficult to remember some policy and procedural things. She hasn’t given herself time NOT to work. If something doesn’t go well during the school day, she looks to her own preparedness. She finds herself having a difficult time separating work and being home. She struggles with imposter syndrome, and wonders how COVID affected her preparation to become a teacher– did she get the full experience of a teacher education program and is she really prepared? Despite the newness, her colleagues are supportive and don’t treat her as a novice. She feels a part of the team. She’s also able to connect to her students faster and easier because they’ve shared the online learning experience. Her students will say to her “You get it.”
As she builds her program, community is one of her priorities. Part of community building is learning foundations of music together– sight-reading, vocal technique, identifying features of octavos, aural skills. Sometimes community building has looked different than she anticipated. As an example, she had a student speak about being anti-LGBTQ+. She was taken aback by this, because she had never met a student who felt this way (or at least not a student who has expressed it). Her approach was to try to educate the student on how to care about individual people in their community, and what that expression of care might look (or sound) like.
She’s making a point to learn about each student: Who are they and what do they need? She’s trying to understand all identity points, or at least the ones students share. She’s made it a priority to meet all the counselors so she has access to resources and can learn from them. The students are doing listening journals, and the singers pick the music and create the assignment to go along with it. Some music doesn’t have any text, and some music isn’t in English. It’s been a great chance to learn about what the students value and what they need.