When Things Go Off the Rails: Rolling With It

pedagogy corner Oct 19, 2021

We all have moments in our teaching when something just doesn't go as planned. In fact, sometimes an entire lesson can feel like it goes off the rails. How can we plan for the unexpected?

I recently had an experience of a class not going as planned. Most of the time, I can roll with an activity not working well or alter my approach when something just isn’t engaging students. In this case, however, I was caught off-guard with something pretty substantial and my recovery wasn’t as quick as I’d hoped. 

Here's how it happened. My adult ukulele ensemble has been running for 8 seasons now. Many of these folks have been making music together for years. In March 2020, I had to move my class online just as many of us did and I’ve been teaching it that way ever since. I’d climbed the steep learning curve of online teaching, I’d been gaining comfort with technology and using activities that worked better in this setting. And although we’d all really prefer to be back in person, we’re still erring on the side of caution this fall and running our sessions virtually. We have a good online routine going.

I felt like I was back in those early days of the pandemic when first learning to teach live online. Awkward and vulnerable!

So it came as a shock when, just as I was getting rolling with one of our recent classes, I suddenly got kicked out of the Zoom session. OK, not ideal, but I took a deep breath and tried to log back in, hoping that everyone else had remained in the session and it was just me who somehow got disconnected.

No luck. There was no connection at all. I ran to the router to see what was happening. No signal. I raced to other members of the household who were also in meetings or online activities. No connection for them, either. I texted a few of the ensemble members to let them know I did not have an internet connection at the moment and to see if they were all kicked out. Apparently, nearly everyone else remained in the class and after a few minutes, several of them jumped in to start leading our weekly warm ups, run some repertoire, and even went as far as creating breakout rooms for a new instrumental piece we were starting.

The class was essentially running itself! And for a moment, in between my escalating anxiety, I had a feeling of gratitude and relief that they were still getting some musical experience in that night. Over the following 40 minutes, I worked to try to enable a hotspot link with my phone (unsuccessful), to figure out what the outage was and if it would resolve soon (found later it was the internet company; our whole neighbourhood was down for two hours), to reboot and reboot, and finally was able to maintain a connection directly through my phone after being kicked off two further times.

I joined in the for the last 30 minutes of class, just in time to teach a new piece. It was awkward and not nearly at my usual level of presentation as I hovered over and sang/played into my tiny phone, unable to even see the ensemble members. I felt like I was back in those early days of the pandemic when first learning to teach live online. Awkward and vulnerable!

But I took a deep breath, embraced the discomfort, and we made it through. This brings me to share with you five things I believe helped keep the class and myself “on track” as I reflect on this experience.  

1. Routine / Expectation

Creating a sense of routine in our weekly sessions helped keep the group focused on what should happen next and help remove anxiety when things weren’t going as planned. In this case, they knew the warm-ups. They knew we’d run through some of our more comfortable repertoire. They knew we’d then jump into some of the more difficult bits, like the multi-part instrumental. Everyone was on the same page with the general order of things and could confidently move through some semblance of a lesson on their own.  

2. Resources

The kinds of resources we create or provide can help not only when things are going as planned but can also be helpful when things take a turn. For example, I create play-along audio tracks to practice with. And while we’re online, the class receives our handouts in advance of the sessions so they’ve already got their pieces in-hand. These things mean that they aren’t waiting on me for something to start with; they’ve got the materials and some support resources to help them work on things.

3. Encourage leadership and group support

I had already asked a few of the members of the ensemble to take the lead on parts in the breakout sessions that evening. I am also fortunate to have so many people in the ensemble who are simply happy to jump in and help each other. This supportive environment meant folks were already primed to take on coordinating or leading in some way, either through me formally organizing (with part leadership), or by trying to create an overall environment of connection and engagement. 

 4. Plan, plan, plan

It goes without saying that planning is always important. Putting systems and expectations in place, or preparing your lesson thoroughly, helps you determine not only what and how you will teach, but can also give you the chance to create contingencies. If I get through all of this material too quickly, what else will I do with the class? What are the different ways I can teach this song excerpt? What song or activity can I always have in my back pocket to teach without any materials if everyone’s tired or distracted? These are questions that are always good to ask ourselves as we lesson plan, remembering that a plan is an important guide but you always need to be ready to pivot, if needed.

5.  Take a deep breath

As jazz musician Stefon Harris has said, "Every mistake is an opportunity in jazz" and perhaps with a similar approach to teaching, we can take these challenges as opportunities. Take a deep breath and have the courage to embrace the moment as a chance to try something else. It means we have to be a bit vulnerable as educators, but when we also present our authentic selves more with our students—we are real people, too!—we can create more courageous, confident and caring classrooms. And isn't that one of the most wonderful parts of teaching? 

As uncomfortable as it can be when things go awry, some amazing things can happen when we allow ourselves to roll with the unexpected. What have you found has helped you when things don’t go as planned? What would you do differently next time after something went off the rails? Share your thoughts in the Uketropolis community!

Cynthia Kinnunen is a music educator based in Guelph, Ontario, and a member of Team Uketropolis. www.cynthiakmusic.com   

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