I ran across this tweet yesterday while mindlessly scrolling through Twitter. I gave it a quick look, and quickly hit retweet with the reply, "Could not agree more."
I am not a big retweet guy. But, this one resonates with me. Today would have been commencement exercises for the NCSSM graduating class of 2020. Typically this Saturday in May is one of the most exciting days of the year for NCSSM students. For the last 19 years, I have spent this day on the beautiful lawn of NCSSM leading our rising senior musicians as they set the stage for their friends and colleagues to move on to the next step of their lives. Today is a beautiful sunny 80° day. It would have been perfect for the NCSSM Commencement. I would have met several colleagues for an early breakfast at the Cracker Barrel. We would have listened to speeches encouraging students to go seek their dreams, played Pomp and Circumstance to set the stage, witnessed that sea of navy blue caps and gowns, and shared lots of hugs and tears. Then, I would have headed home, loaded up the car, and traveled to Pennsylvania for an annual reunion with four of my very best friends from high school. This has been the rhythm of Memorial Day weekend for my family for many years. I look forward to commencement and we all look forward to the "Annual Gathering of the Five Families. This weekend is truly the official start of summer for my family.
But obviously today was different. My mind has wandered to my graduating senior students many times today. I wonder how they are spending the day. Are they celebrating? Or, is it just another day of relative isolation? Did they put on their cap and gown? Did they call a friend? Or, perhaps did they go to a lake and have a picnic? I really do wonder. I have also thought a good deal about my rising seniors who will be my musical leaders next year. It really stinks that we didn't get a chance to play Pomp and Circumstance together. This is always a day of great bonding and preparation for transition into the next school year for my underclassman musicians. This year would have been particularly meaningful, because it would have been my last time to co-direct the Commencement Orchestra with my dear friend Phillip Riggs and to share the stage with my other dear friend, David Stuntz directing the Chorale in the National Anthem. Both of these colleagues are retiring this spring and next year's commencement ceremony will feel quite different. I can't wait to welcome my new colleagues into this wonderful community. But, I really wish I would have had this last commencement with my long-time friends and colleagues.
One of the things I love about working in academia is the flow of opening and closing school. It always feels so good to open school in August and to close school when commencement is over. I love the process of walking away for a little while and reorganizing my thoughts and energy before starting the process all over again at the beginning of August. This year, it doesn't feel like we get that transition. Will we be learning face-to-face in the fall? Or, will we be remote learning again? Or, will there be some sort of hybrid plan where we have students in the room and online? If we are not face-to-face, what does that mean for my syllabus? What does it mean for concerts? Will my enrollment go down? There are so many questions and, truthfully, not many answers right now. And yet, this is what is on the minds of all teachers and administrators across the United States. I have noticed that everyone is starting to make plans. There are firm plans and contingency plans. There is speculation and clearly some misinformation. It is very hard to know what will actually happen at this point.
I would argue we all need a break. This spring has been taxing. I have been pushed to the brink pedagogically, physically, and emotionally. We all had to rethink our course content and methodology of delivery as we went into remote learning. I am pleased to say that I feel pretty successful in this endeavor. The feedback I received from students and parents following the spring term was overwhelmingly positive. It was hard to hit the mark, but I believe this worked for me. I cannot report the same about my physical well-being following the spring. I have tried to walk a minimum of 10,000 steps every day and have been committed to my standing desk while teaching. That said, I have aches and pains I did not have back in February. I have learned to deal with what I call "Zoom-fog" after many 8 to 10 hour Zoom days in the past several weeks. It is not a good feeling. I'm guessing many of you know what I'm talking about. With all of this, I still believe the emotional toll has been the greatest. While I have been generally fine during this period, I have some days when I simply break down and cry. This is not normal for me. My emotional swings are wide and fast. I really just don't think we are built for teaching or learning completely in front of a computer screen. Especially in the Arts, we live for human connection. If you scroll back through this blog, you will find many posts that remind us that relationships are at the core of great music making and great arts education. I still believe this and will fight you if you disagree. ;)
I am pleased to report I'm serving on a national task force for the American String Teachers Association, along with 10 or 12 esteemed colleagues from around the country. We are looking at creating some clear and thoughtful guidelines for our return to school in the fall in the String and Orchestra classroom. We are hoping to divide these guidelines into clear categories with guidelines for a successful re-entry to school. Every one of us doesn't need to invent this wheel. I believe strongly that education associations, local and state governments, and school administrations will help guide us through this process and allow us some latitude to make mistakes when they are in the best interest of student learning and emotional well-being.
But, we all need a break. We all need to simply let our brains rest. Our hearts need to rest. This has been hard. We need to step back, pay some attention to ourselves, our families, our bodies and regroup. I am fortunate that I have a wonderful home with some space that is special to me, where I find peace and rejuvenation. I encourage you to find the same. Put your feet up. Read a book about something other than pedagogy and remote learning. (I just finished Elton John's biography, "Me.") Take an emotional vacation and allow your brain to rest. School is going to start in the fall. You will be able to figure it out. Do I have all the answers right now? Absolutely not. Do I believe strongly that we will get there through the course of the summer? Absolutely, I do.
To the class of 2020, congratulations! You did it. I believe that your class will go down in history as one that learned to be resilient, that learned to pivot when needed, and that put the greater human good over your own personal wants and desires. I will miss each and every one of you. And I encourage you to lift up those around you while giving it your all. You have great things ahead of you.
To my friends in Pennsylvania, I look forward to seeing you guys on Zoom this evening. It won't be the same, but it will make me happy and allow me to reset a bit.
To my friends and colleagues around the United States in string and music education, hang in there. Take a break. You need to make some time to regroup so that you can come back strong in a couple of months. It is that important.