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Learning to teach in a pandemic: Belmont student teachers navigate virtual learning in Nashville-are

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

An elementary school music room looks a little different during a pandemic.

Students are sitting six feet apart, wearing musician masks and covering their instruments with bell covers, and this is only on the rare occasions they are allowed to play together in person.

Otherwise, band class is a sea of black screens, muted microphones, and in the case of Nicollette Lyons, a student teacher on the other side, earnestly trying to keep her students interested.

Teaching in a pandemic is undeniably difficult — but education students have found that learning to teach in the middle of COVID-19 is just as hard.

“It is extremely heartbreaking being in class and having to tell students that they can’t be around each other. That is my biggest struggle,” said Lyons, one of many music education majors who are student teaching in a time where classrooms look entirely different.

As they complete their student teaching requirements this semester, senior music education majors have had to navigate digitized classrooms and prepare for how a pandemic is already affecting their future careers.

This spring, Belmont student teachers were placed in two different Nashville-area schools, splitting their semester between them.

Grace Whaley, a music education major specializing in vocal licensure, taught general music online in an elementary school for her first student teaching placement and found it was difficult to connect with her young students online.

“The issue with trying to do music over a Zoom call is that, even if they’re singing with you, you can’t hear them. It’s just way too chaotic if you tell them all to put their microphones on, especially when they are 5 years old,” she said.

Whaley was thankful to have time to teach less-discussed topics like music history and music theory online, but disappointed with the lack of kinesthetic teaching she is able to do. Singing and playing instruments was what got her students excited about music class, so she found it difficult to teach classes without these activities.

“I’m kind of in the mindset of ‘It can only get better,’ because it literally can’t get worse than trying to teach music online,” said Whaley.

Lyons echoed this sentiment. Teaching music over Zoom has its limitations, including taking away the ability to play and practice as an ensemble.

“It’s very difficult to have quality music-making in an online medium because we all know how Zoom works: we can’t have our kids play together because of delay and feedback, so running a rehearsal is just out of the question,” she said.

Given the many obstacles that come with Zoom instruction, Lyons has learned to show a lot of grace at elementary band rehearsals.

“When you’re not playing and you’re not getting the camaraderie aspect of an ensemble, it’s really difficult to justify why you keep practicing,” said Lyons. “So how can I, as your teacher, expect you to want to still keep playing your instrument?”

Online learning takes more than just a toll on students. For Sarah Gould, the experience has had a mental impact.

“I’m very much somebody who likes to be in the classroom with the students and build that relationship that can really only come from seeing those students every day and making music together. Emotionally, that was a big challenge for me,” said Gould.

While teaching high school students online is already tough, it was made all the more hard by the fact that her students weren’t required to turn on their cameras or participate in class.

“I was teaching to a black screen,” Gould said. “Attendance was not required … We would have days where we have 15 kids, and some days we’d have three.”

Lyons found this with her eighth-graders as well.

“For the most part, they’re just like, ‘camera off, mute on,’” she said.

However, Gould said the challenges of teaching in a pandemic have prepared her for most everything.

“If I can do this, then I can definitely teach in a normal year,” she said.

For Kayla Wicklund, another student teacher studying voice licensure, COVID-19 is impacting her ability to teach choir. Wicklund’s students are not able to sing in the close-quartered space of their choir room due to health precautions.

Though she is able to be with her class and take on the role of a teacher, this experience might not translate to a post-pandemic teaching position, she said.

“I’m so lucky to be in-person … but what am I gonna do when I have to be an actual choir director, and I have no choir experience because we’re not singing?” said Wicklund.

She is not alone in feeling this uncertainty. Other student teachers are going through the same thing, and it’s clear their young students are having an equally tough time.

Lyons saw students emotionally distressed with school in a pandemic — a side effect that was hard to prepare for in her college classes. As she transitioned to an in-person classroom at her second student teaching placement, she saw the students struggling to adapt.

“I’ve had a lot of students get really anxious. I’ve had a couple of students have panic attacks during class,” she said.

“We have to remember that these kids haven’t been in a classroom, physically, in a year. It’s really difficult for them adjusting to how school schedules work and having to deal with bell changes as opposed to having to just turn on Zoom.”

Among all the emotional difficulties and worry about the future, Rachael Freed spoke of how her negative experiences were all worth it when she finally was in the same room as some of her students during the transition to in-person classes.

“I came in and got to listen to people sing music right in front of me. And I haven’t been able to do that since the fall. And oh, it was like such a breath of fresh air. They’re amazing kids,” said Freed.

“I’ll do the mask mandate. I’d rather work with this than go back virtually any day.”

Throughout all the discouraging aspects of their learning experience, each student teacher expressed a great amount of optimism and appreciation for their students and their work.

Lyons, working with slightly insecure middle schoolers, found ways to keep them interested through the screen. She made their learning as relevant as possible, studying the history of jazz and hip-hop during Black History Month and opening the class to discussion as often as she could.

“It’s really, really difficult, especially when you’re 12 or 13. It’s just hard. So just giving them an outlet to talk to each other, to talk about music, and to do things they like was really good for my fifth- and sixth-graders,” she said.

Having to find creative ways to keep students engaged, Gould feels more prepared for post-graduate life.

“It’s really interesting to see how different music teachers are handling this. It means that we’re all getting really different skills going out into the real world, and I think even if I’m not getting the chance to have my kids sing, I’m still learning a lot about how to do it from others,” she said.

Lyons shared one skill she acquired that she will be taking with her beyond the pandemic.

“I’ve learned that I have limits, too … I can guarantee that I’m going to show up for my kids as much as I possibly can. But some things just aren’t going to work out all the time, and that’s something you’re going to have to deal with, especially with pandemic teaching. There are just some things I need to let go. I’m not going to be perfect,” she said.

Ultimately, these student teachers are learning that teaching in a pandemic is preparing them for their careers. But they don’t deny they’ve been robbed of valuable in-person teaching experience.

Despite a very difficult situation, all of them expressed that while it is very hard, they are continuing to do their best for their students.

“The students need someone to know that they’re there for them, that they care about them, that they love them and that they want them to be safe. And that is my ultimate priority in my teaching,” said Lyons.

This article was written by Margot Pierson. Updated Friday evening.

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