I haven’t felt like a first-year teacher in years.

You know, that feeling where the kids are staring at you, and you know half of them are like, “Um… please stop.” and the other half are like, “Poor guy…”

Yeah, that happened yesterday with some of my high school kids.

This week in my Contemporary Music class we are starting on analyzing music so as to better understand form and structure. This way they can use this knowledge to better write their own stuff.

In order to do this, I felt the need to do a crash course in basic music theory.

I’ve always excelled in this since, you know, I failed music theory in college twice and so had to take it three times and almost got kicked out of school for it.

And I’ve always enjoyed using a white board and pointing to physical objects and running back and forth to a piano to illustrate what I’m talking about and all that. So of course online teaching is the same.


*smacks forehead*

The Story

I had nine kids in the virtual classroom, varying in exposure to music theory from “What are notes?” to “I think I’ll substitute the b9 here in the subdominant instead of the +5 because it’s more ironic.”

Soooo, I said to the ones who had lots of experience, “Hey guys, if you already had music theory or feel really comfortable with it, you can get off the chat now. I don’t want to waste your time, since we’re starting from the very basics.”

No one left. I guess ’cause they were craving human interaction… or wanted to see how I taught it, or whatever. Meh, they’re the good kids… I bet they were probably just being polite.

The thing is, one of these kids is better at music theory than I am, and one is almost there. Suddenly I felt the need to get through this stuff quickly, so as not to waste their time. That’s because our synchronous time together isn’t required for them. They’re literally choosing to be with me in the video chat. Pressure.

I should also probably mention that when I teach, as I’m sure you can attest in your own teaching, I thrive on interaction with kids. You know, the tilted heads, raised eyebrows, deep sighs of frustration, and giddy but understated “be cool, bro, be cool” half smiles kids get when the light bulbs go off. The way your kids act during live instruction is vital to pacing, emphasis, and questioning strategies.

You know this, I know know this…

Guys, it was awful.

All the kids are muted, most have their video feed off. I’m trying to use my mouse as a substitute for my normal emphatic movements. The sound for the presentation I was using didn’t work (I forgot to check like a dummy). I ask “Does this make sense?” like an idiot, waiting for a response, and I get 3 head nods, silence, and 1 chat response I have to pull up. I tried to move too fast to accommodate the cool kids (and also I started panicking when the sound wouldn’t work), leaving the newbie kids in the dust…

I hadn’t felt this inept in a long time. I started to sweat, my cheeks turning red, my camera was so close to my face that they can see the pores on my skin, I had a knot in my gut. I bumbled through the lesson.

I thought, I’m wasting their time.

Finally, after 15-20 minutes of this, I stopped. I apologized to them. I’ve known these kids since they were in 6th grade, so the relationship is strong enough that I felt comfortable doing so… there’s enough respect and grace there. I told them we’ll try again tomorrow, and I think I was visably upset because the kids unmuted and encouraged me, “It’s okay, Mr. Szuba.” “It’s fine, Mr. Szuba.” I told them we’d try again tomorrow and we got off the call.

I didn’t cry… I got the majority of that out of me in March. 🙂 It was the last class of the day, so I had some time to reflect.

Here are my take-aways.

First: Didactic Teaching Online is Just… Different

For more than 12 years, I’ve heavily relied on human interaction and social feedback to feel my way through a lesson. It’s actually the one thing that I think makes me a decent teacher… it certainly isn’t my musical ability (after all, in college I didn’t get an “A” in a lesson until the end of my junior year)! My ability to read body language and facial expressions is also my personal motivator when teaching a lesson, I’ve discovered. I feed off the joy of the kids in real time and it keeps me going.

In an online chat room, didactic teaching just can’t be done in the same way. I can’t rely on real time interaction to inform my pacing or much of anything else. I’ve got to come up with a better way.

Second: It’s a Flipped Classroom, Stupid!

After I thought for a little bit, I got on Youtube to look at how other teachers taught crash courses in basic music theory. There’s so many great approaches, levels of detail, speeds of instruction…

And it struck me. Why am I reinventing the wheel? Why can’t I just share this awesome content with the kids instead of me struggling to teach these concepts?

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it?

And it’s not like I’m not “teaching” it; it’s not like I’m cheating. There’s no shame in getting assistance from an expert! The internet makes it possible to get the best theory teachers in the world into the eyes and ears of our kids! I’m available for questions, I can follow up with kids newer to the theory game, I can assess them on the basics for accountability. It’s a no-brainer!

I quickly made a new “Music Theory” page in the online classroom and loaded all the videos and links I found and provided it as a resource for the kids. It felt really good, because I know that I am better serving my kids by doing this rather than wasting their time in an online chat when I should be figuring out how to inspire and mentor and guide them.

Third: A Chance to Teach Resilience

The thing I am most excited about this unfortunate event is that I knew this day would come. We all do! Everyone knows 2020 would be difficult. Everyone knows there’ll be failures and missteps. We tell our kids that failure is just proof that they made the attempt; that they should learn from those failures and grow.

Old (*ahem* “more experienced”) teachers who are so stinkin’ good at their jobs are having to reinvigorate themselves, reinvent their approach to teaching, and reevaluate their educational philosophies. Failure is to be expected.

So that’s what I’m going tell my kids today. I failed. I changed. I’m here. Let’s go.

Here’s to more failure! Cheers.

*clink, clink, clink*

Love you guys. God bless. 🙂