Zooming in: Performing Arts teachers in time of COVID

A woman with long hair and white dress moving across a stageCredit: Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Restrictions to teaching spaces since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year forced teachers to embrace different modes and combinations of teaching delivery.

A group of international education researchers, led by Associate Professor Louise Phillips of Southern Cross University, have shared the results of an open-ended question survey of the impact on drama, dance and music teachers.

The study, published in NJ: Drama Australia Journal by Associate Professor Susan Davis of Central Queensland University and Associate Professor Louise Phillips of Southern Cross University, details the particular challenges for teachers of the performing arts.

But it’s not just teachers under pressure: equity and connectivity for students was an important consideration.

“We wanted to ascertain how teachers of drama, dance and music were making sense of the COVID-19 restrictions, how the restrictions impacted teaching and learning, and how their understandings influenced their practice,” says Associate Professor Davis.

“Teachers of the performing arts, who are typically on their feet and working with their bodies for a majority of their teaching time, had to change their practice to a more ‘sedentary’, screen-based experience. It is particularly timely to revisit our findings, as schools begin to talk about reverting to remote learning due to the latest outbreaks.

“Our research also highlighted equity issues for students. These subjects require some form of face-to-face in ways that perhaps subjects like English or mathematics can find work-arounds for. For the students who don’t have a device to use at home, or sporadic internet access, how do teachers make sure these students are engaged?”

According to Associate Professor Davis: “Online teaching delivery has challenged some of the foundational tenets of drama teaching – people in a room working together physically, featuring extensive peer to peer collaboration, learning and co-creation.

“COVID inspired changes have presented teaching challenges and huge workload increases.”

The study drew on the voices of a number of teachers.

It is much more time consuming to deliver content in an engaging way, to be thinking about how to draw students in without being able to connect in person: Queensland secondary teacher.

Many teachers reported that online delivery reduced their ability to ‘read the room’. Teaching online reduced opportunities for spontaneous and instant response between teachers and students, and reduced the opportunities for ‘teachable’ moments.

Drama classes are known for their capacity to build relationality and safe spaces. Drama teachers often start classes with warm up activities to invite the class into a playful relational space. According to this research, the online space is not as conducive for building an environment of trust and collaboration.

Teachers reported that some students couldn’t, or wouldn’t, use cameras nor would they interact by audio.

“For some it seemed there was a higher risk associated with presenting the self in an online forum,” noted the authors.

A lot of students had issues with being on camera therefore disengaged: Victorian secondary teacher.

The research also showed teacher’s concern for students who didn’t engage with remote learning, those students with disabilities or learning needs, and those from disadvantaged communities.

A lack of equity around digital connection resulted in some students not being able to access their learning. Other environmental factors in the home prevented some students from engaging with their work in a meaningful way: NSW secondary teacher.

Southern Cross University’s Associate Professor Phillips says it was significant how many teachers reported ‘missing’ their students – missed having them together in the classroom.

“Teachers reported how they not only missed their students, but the energy coming from their students, and the interplay of energy given and reciprocated in the live presence of each other,” she said.

I am a practical teacher and I enjoy being in the classroom, it is hard to shift energy online, it is hard to build meaningful relationships. I care about the environment my students are in when they enter my classroom: Queensland secondary teacher.

According to Associate Professor Davis: “It was difficult for teachers to keep working so hard and keep churning out the content and materials if they didn’t have the energy and feedback from their students – as that helped make it all worthwhile. Some teachers mentioned how their motivation was suffering.”

Not being face to face with my students has had a clear impact upon motivation for both them and myself…I have struggled with the lack of interaction with my students and providing ongoing support to other teachers: Queensland secondary teacher.

Performing arts teachers are nothing if not flexible and many identified ways to improvise, collaborate, create drama, and move beyond using the technologies for ‘instruction’ and delivery. A number mentioned successes with rehearsing and performing in role via zoom or video conferencing, and students creating their own dramatic performances.

Another source of support and inspiration for many of the arts educators was the support provided through their professional associations and networks.

I have relied more on my online community of drama teachers and arts practitioners than ever. The generosity of others in sharing resources during this time is astounding!: NSW secondary teacher.

The researchers noted: “Systems could provide more resourcing and support to professional associations, to shared content creation and professional development. This would ensure teachers’ energy can remain more directly focused on their students.

“Although Performing Arts teachers have found ways to develop some alternative methods online and through combinations of online and offline activity, it has been long argued that technology should add to the drama classroom, not substitute it entirely.

“With such disruptive events continuing to occur, systems do need to learn from these experiences, prepare for contingencies and provide more support for teachers.”

Study details

Susan Davis & Louise Gwenneth Phillips (2021) ‘Teaching during COVID 19 times – The experiences of drama and performing arts teachers and the human dimensions of learning’, NJ: Drama Australia Journal, DOI: 10.1080/14452294.2021.1943838

Reproduced with permission from an original media release by MCERA, Media Centre for Education Research Australia.

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