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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Your Missing Students Aren't Behavior Problems

I have been trying to put my finger on what it is that bothers me about the way teachers are talking about all the students who aren't logging in or completing their distance learning assignments, and I think I've finally formed some concrete thoughts. This whole school closure situation is stressful for everyone. If you've been worried about low participation levels in your distance learning activities, I hope this will help re-frame your thinking.

The basic point is this: the students who don't participate in our distance learning lessons should not be equated in our minds with students who refuse to participate in an activity in the classroom. They should be equated with students who are absent. 

There are completely different issues at play when a student becomes defiant in a brick and mortar classroom- take some time to reflect on these posts on behavior and equity if you want to explore that topic. But in this crisis management, distance learning period we're in right now, we can't look at the blanks next to a student's name and imagine them deliberately choosing not to click on the music assignment out of defiance or disregard. I assure you, most of the time that is not the case.

The underlying thought process that I am hearing from the music education community bemoaning the lack of participation seems to go back to the idea that students are choosing not to do the music lessons because they (or their families) don't care, or because their lessons aren't engaging enough. I just don't think that's the case for most of them.

In many cases it's just a matter of not understanding fully what they're supposed to do, or having difficulty with one of the many technological steps required to simply submit an assignment. I'm sure many students and families don't know, or forget, that there are separate assignments, usually in a different place than their homeroom assignments, for music. 

Are some students and families making a deliberate choice not to do music assignments and only focus on math and reading? Yes. Are they doing it out of defiance or ill-will? No, I don't think so. It's less like the kid sitting in class saying "I don't wanna" and more like the kid who has limited energy because they're just getting over the flu so they only go to school for part of the day and miss music class. Are there issues with valuing some subjects over others as a society that we should address? Definitely. But that's not the battle to fight right now. The truth is humans everywhere, whether they realize it yet or not, have reawakened to the importance of music through this experience. They're listening to it more, they're turning to it for comfort, they're singing, dancing, playing instruments more. When families and students make the choice to only certain assignments, I promise you it is because they have limited energy, time, technology, all of the above.

Let's also keep in mind that some students are doing the assignments and activities but we just don't see it. I know I've had a few parents comment in an email or on the phone how much their whole family has enjoyed their child's music assignments and I've just stared in disbelief because they haven't turned in a single assignment throughout the entire closure! We're not there in the room. There are more students participating, or attempting to, in our lessons than we think.

Why is this distinction important? When we have a student not participating in class, we react by trying to figure out what the problem is, whether that's with our teaching, their situation, or both. We ask the student why they aren't joining in, we enforce consequences, we reflect on our teaching to try to make it more engaging- in short there is a problem that needs to be fixed. When we have a student who is absent, it is what it is and we do our best to catch them up when they return. Maybe we inquire why they're absent from class, especially if they miss more than one class period in a row. Maybe we follow up to make sure they aren't missing class for avoidable reasons- did their transportation accessibility change? Are they dealing with a home situation that keeps them from coming to school? But we don't generally start looking for a problem to fix (outside the chronic absences)- we encourage our students not to miss class as much as they can, help students catch up on what they missed, and move on without placing blame on ourselves, the students, or the families.

Should we follow up when we have students who are chronically absent from our distance learning assignments? Sure. Of course we want to make sure that students have equitable access, help where we can with any difficult life situations our students may find themselves in, and make sure our kids are OK. But rather than treating it as an engagement issue, let's treat it as an attendance issue. Stop assigning blame to yourselves, your students, or their families. Teach the ones that are there the best way you can, and check in on the ones who aren't. We'll catch up when we're back together.

I'm collecting all of my posts, both for home and for music teaching, related to school closures on this page- check here for all my past posts and stay up to date on the latest:


  1. Yes! Thank you for writing this. I too have been thinking over this during the past few weeks. I often think that, had I been a kid during this pandemic, my grades/participation would have tanked. And it would've had everything to do with access to the internet and accessibility to transportation. When you live in the country, your ability to just "go use Starbucks wifi" is impossible, especially if the closest Starbucks is a 40-minute drive away. There would've been more obstacles than just the ones I've mentioned, but none that I'd be willing to share. I sit and think about those kids in similar situations, and my heart breaks for them. On top of everything else, RAINN is reporting an uptick in abuse cases, with the majority of minors living with their abusers. Knowing all of that, I just can't imagine assuming that students just aren't doing their work because they don't want to.

    1. Definitely there are accessibility issues and students living in very difficult home situations! I think more often, the ones we frame in our minds as "problems" are those who don't have to deal with those obstacles but aren't active in our lessons. Not that many teachers are consciously thinking of them as defiant, per se, but we are treating the issue and responding to them as if they are.