Cherishing ‘Small Victories’ amid Challenges Teaching Arts in Hybrid School

Students preparing for the Identity Show in the GDS arts studio in Feb. 2020. Photo by Jordan Yates.

Arts teachers’ jobs were already made more difficult than usual in a fully virtual setting, but GDS’ shift to hybrid learning has presented them with a new set of challenges still. Arts teachers have faced obstacle after obstacle—ranging from technical issues to a lack of manual, one-on-one instruction—while teaching in the unknown environment of hybrid school. 

The set of subjects—both performing and visual—brings a particular level of complexity to the world of hybrid teaching. Teaching classes in which students are split between Zoom and campus creates innumerable hurdles for all teachers, but introducing the complex, hands-on aspect of the arts brings their difficulty to an entirely new level.

In anticipation of just how difficult the transition to the hybrid schooling platform would be, the GDS administration required the arts faculty to go through a series of training programs last summer. The courses took place at institutions such as the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“We had to really broaden our horizons and let go of many of the teaching systems and habits that we were accustomed to,” reflected GDS studio arts department chair Michelle Cobb.

The time for the GDS transition to hybrid came in early December. Though most teachers can agree that it’s nice to see students’ faces back on campus, the change created more work and more difficulty for the arts staff.

“In the hands-on classes, I’ve actually had to create two projects: an at home project and an in-school project,” Cobb explained. 

While that dual-track setup allows students to travel on and off of campus without the fear of forgetting materials that could lead to incomplete assignments, it makes life for the teachers even more complicated. It can also create a divide between students in school and at home; since the two groups are working on separate projects, the teacher isn’t able to teach them together.

Jazz teacher Brad Linde has experienced many of the same difficulties, particularly struggling with balancing time between his in-person and virtual students. 

“When we’re in class and we have the opportunity to play, the focus really becomes on that because we’ve spent so much time virtually where we can’t play together,” Linde said. “So the people at home get a little lost in the shuffle.”

When students are at home, computer audio is hard to sync, so a lot of valuable group practice time is lost. Once some students are able to come into school, the teacher’s priority typically shifts to them to make up for lost time. Meanwhile, students who are not on campus can get left behind.

While in classes like science or history, teachers often view computer technology as a helpful tool, in arts classes, it can often do more harm than good, distracting students from the project at hand. 

Many teachers, including ceramics teacher Nick Ryan, have avoided bringing computer technology into the classroom. Ryan said he feels that art classes can be a form of escape for students—since their attention can be focused solely on the work that they’re creating—and that hybrid technology has made that increasingly challenging.

“I’ve resisted the intrusion of technology into my class purposely,” Ryan reflected. “I feel like one of the values of my class is that it’s a hands-on class. But the amount of hands-on, brain-to-hand creativity and imagination is diminishing, and I think it’s really important that I preserve that aspect of things.”

“We’re a very hands-on department,” Cobb reflected, echoing her colleague’s concerns. She said the limitations of hybrid school have hindered teachers’ ability to personalize their guidance of students. 

Hybrid learning forces students to be a lot more independent in their work—and while independence is typically encouraged (and expected) in high school students to help prepare them for their later lives, for arts teachers, autonomy can mean incomplete assignments and lack in motivation among students.

“I do feel there are students who have been unable to complete a project, or were less motivated to do their best, in part because of the way the pandemic has affected teaching the class and learning in a class,” Ryan explained. 

But Ryan has learned that celebrating students’ “small victories” rather than punishing them for mistakes keeps students’ spirits high, and, in turn, improves work quality.

“When something doesn’t work, we move on,” he explained. “Rather than dwell on the problem—unless it’s something technical and they want to learn that—drawing on the mistakes or the gaps in their time and effort doesn’t really help. I’ve found it’s better to forgive, move on, and say, ‘Oh, we have a fresh start.’”

Cobb has also changed her approach. “Instead of focusing so much on skills-based assignments,” she explained, “we’ve been a lot more focused on creativity.” 

In dealing with the setbacks of hybrid learning, GDS’ arts faculty have been creative and encouraged their students to do the same. And isn’t that what the arts are all about?