First of all, I am going to ask us all to take a breath. Yes, seriously.

Take a deep breath.

Doesn’t that feel better? As of late, I find myself doing most of my work while holding my breath all the time. I do this as I am typing IEP input, creating an activity for my students, and otherwise navigating life in our current situation. I find myself being so busy trying to replicate my classroom online that I forget to eat for hours. Luckily, I have an 8-month-old fetus inside of me that typically gives me a nudge to remind me, or us, to eat.

Facing a new reality

I think it is safe to admit that no one, seriously, no one, ever expected to live through something like this—let alone teach through it. As many of you are aware (or are currently experiencing) we have recently been thrust into a situation where we have had little to no control over our day to day lives. On top of this, we are now expected to teach our students remotely and carry on as normal when everything is not normal. It is okay to feel overwhelmed, no, very overwhelmed during this time. In fact, I highly encourage us all to embrace this feeling of being overwhelmed when we feel it and try our best make friends with this feeling instead of shoving it down or pushing it away. By doing this, we avoid facing that feeling in full force at another time that we really do not need it to (say… having an emotional breakdown in the CVS while you try to pick up a prescription).

This was me just the other day.

I keep trying to pretend everything is normal by throwing myself into work, trying to ‘perfect’ my online classroom, only to realize how abnormal everything is. This sunk in yesterday when I left my house for the first time in 12 days. Walking into the pharmacy and seeing everyone wearing masks and winter gloves despite the temperature outside being 68 degrees was, jarring, to say the least. I had been ignoring the reality of the world for so long that this image of what was really going on hit me hard.

My emotions went from 0 to 100 real quick when the pharmacist told me she could not find my prescription under “Lauren Marcinkowski.” I had to take a moment and breathe, choke down tears and ask the nice pharmacist, “Could you please look up the prescription under my maiden name, Lucerne?” Terror sunk in as I began to panic, believing that if I couldn’t get my inhaler medication, I would have an asthma attack and die on the spot. Luckily, the prescription was under my maiden name (somehow, after 2 years of being married).

Caring and doing your best

I only tell you this story because, before I begin to detail my trials and tribulations of online teaching, I think we all need to take a step back and breathe. We must recognize that this is unprecedented and that we are all doing our best because we all care. These are the emotions our students are feeling on a day to day basis, without the capability of being able to express these emotions either because of the whimsy of youth or because of special needs.

If you are currently reading this, you clearly care about the state of education right now, and how to help better your students during this time. You are concerned over things like equitable learning, the barriers we face when educating students who do not have access to technology resources or students who have significant needs that make it difficult for them to engage with ore even access an online educational platform. You care and you are doing your best in this unprecedented situation.

In this unprecedented situation. That is the key phrase here. The biggest realization that has helped me was not this notion of “I am doing my best,” but that I am doing my best in this unprecedented  situation. There are no case studies or research-based best practices here. In fact, I would wager that in 95% of all cases, we are not providing what we typically provide in the school setting. It is that simple. We aren’t doing our “best,” because we truly cannot during this time.

I agonized over this realization a few days ago when I received an email about a child’s frustrations with a music activity. This child, who has special needs, had a tantrum because he could not “communicate with his music teacher on the video.” As stated by the educational institution I work for, I am not to provide live lessons (as there are concerns with FERPA and confidentiality). So, I compromised and filmed videos of myself teaching music to the best of my ability in this unprecedented situation. This clearly was not enough for this student, and I knew it was also not my best either as a teacher.

He wanted to communicate with me, his music teacher, not a screen. Knowing that I simply could not provide this given my directives nearly destroyed my faith and hope. That feeling of being overwhelmed quickly returned and began to take over my whole body. “If I cannot provide what this child needs, what am I doing?” My heart broke.

He wanted to communicate with me, his music teacher, not a screen

Finding new ways to communicate

The simple fact is that I am doing all I can do at this time. It is well documented that children need structure, and this is what we can provide as teachers in this unprecedented time. Music is especially helpful as it is also a haven for many students, provides structure naturally, and can engage students in ways other classes may not be able to. We can provide the familiarity to our students through using our unique sing-song voice that we use in music class. We can provide the feedback we would provide our students as if they were standing next to us. We can be that one other person outside their household that yells to them, “I CARE ABOUT YOU,” and truly mean it (even if it is virtually).

This does not just go for students with special needs, but students of all needs. Students with special needs are currently in a more vulnerable situation, but during this unprecedented time, we can truly offer up the individualized support to all students. All students are suffering on some level and need us to be there to support them.

Redefining what and who matters

A college student studying music recently asked me how I knew what I was doing in my music class was “effective” for a population of students with special needs. This population of students has severe medical and developmental needs. Their need for a ventilator has been constant since birth, and they do not communicate in ways that most of us do. In fact, to the naked eye, it may appear as though they do not “communicate” at all. The college student asked, “How can you observe if what you are doing is helping them?” She meant this question with no malice, but rather from a place of pure curiosity.

I found that this was a profound moment to enlighten her on a life lesson that not only pertains to these students, but also to our current teaching situation. To a person who meets this population of students for the first time, yes, it may feel “impossible” to see if these students are benefitting from school. However, herein lays the most important ethical standpoint of all: Just because students are not communicating in a traditional way does not mean they are not participating, gaining benefit, or communicating. To assume anything less places value on one human being’s feelings/quality of life over another’s. It is up to us, the teachers, to figure out how to connect with these students and how to make them heard.

It is up to us, the teachers, to figure out how to connect with these students and how to make them heard.

For teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have this same responsibility of working with all of our students as we have working with our most vulnerable populations. We have the responsibility to provide structure and routine so that students can be heard, even if it is not in the typical fashion. All our students are a ‘vulnerable’ population right now. Some students may not participate online the rest of the year. Some may not grasp concepts easily or show us “observable” improvement during this unprecedented time. As teachers, it is our duty to continue to provide educational services despite not being able to do our best. This may be our biggest test of all, to realize that this is okay. We need to keep showing up for our kids, as we always do, whether we can see how we are affecting them or not. I like to believe that through doing this we still are.

To find out more about Lauren’s work, visit her on instagram @makingmusicalspecialmoments