SCHOOLS | March 10, 2021
Teachers and staff at McDowell Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side believe social-emotional learning at their school stems from a single question: If I haven’t healed myself, how can I heal others? As essential workers during the pandemic, they came to realize they could not adequately support the mental health needs of their students if they are struggling with their own.
This past year, Principal Dr. Jo Easterling-Hood and her team tried to coordinate a virtual holiday event for the first time. And it did not go well. She describes it as an emotional blow that caused stress and anxiety for everyone involved.
“After our celebration was a flop, my immediate reaction was we’re going to come back and do it the right way, because we were not ok!” said Dr. Hood. “So I started talking with my team, and we came up with the idea for a song focusing on SEL that models self-awareness and self-care while also answering the question: What do you do when you’re not ok?”
Producing the project was Mr. Diante Johnson, a teaching assistant at McDowell who also has a background as a musician. The song’s title and hook—”It’s Ok Not to Be Ok”—reflect the contrast between what he was taught about emotions growing up and the social-emotional lessons that are key pieces of instruction at McDowell.
“Growing up as an African American boy, you couldn’t cry. You had to be fine with everything,” said Mr. Johnson. “When you get older, and life hits you, and you hold it all in, it’s not healthy. When the kids see us handling things and know that we can express to them that we’re not okay, then they know how to deal with those situations.”
After recording a studio session with Mr. Johnson and several other McDowell teachers providing the song’s vocals as well as compiling images and video clips from nearly every member of the McDowell team, the project was complete. Special education classroom assistant Ms. Tsureyah McKee, another one of the vocalists, says that the song came together so seamlessly because of the strong relationships between staff.
“Every person at McDowell has a unique talent. For example, with the music, Mr. Johnson just looked at it and was like: Okay, I see where you’re going with this,” said Ms. McKee. “We just thrive off of each other. And we also do that academically in the classroom, which is a beautiful thing for the kids.”
The entire team says that going above and beyond is the norm at McDowell, thanks in large part to high levels of friendly competition between colleagues. On top of just writing a song, they also created an accompanying music video to inspire their students to find positive ways to react to the difficulties of the pandemic. The video included different tips that connected to each staff member’s role and personality.
For example, Ms. Darril Fountain, the school’s art teacher and counselor, showed how painting is a good way to calm down and reduce anxiety. Ms. McKee drank a cup of tea in the video, something her students know she does every morning.
The song and video explains that self-awareness paired with self-care activities such as mindfulness, journaling, reading, and taking time to do things one enjoys and loves is key when working toward emotional wellness. It also directly connects with the SEL practices used by teachers and staff at the school.
“The mindfulness tips that are in the video are things that teachers try to incorporate in their lessons every day,” said Mr. Tim McEachran, the SEL instructor at McDowell. “Whether we’re in person or remote, these things are already a part of what students know and understand.”
Dr. Hood and her staff are excited to be back in the building with each other and with students, but they also see in-person learning as an opportunity to continue growing the SEL-related practices that worked well during remote learning. For technology coordinator Mr. Vince Davis Jr., having students’ parents being present during his classes in a new way meant he was able to help them see the relationship between movement and mindfulness.
Ms. McKee believes ”It’s Ok Not to Be Ok” is more important now than ever before. When welcoming students back into the building, she says the video is a reminder that staff have an important responsibility to continue forming personal connections with students through a focus on SEL even when they might not be able to interact with them like they usually do.
“One thing about McDowell is that we’re like a family and we’ve always been a big embracing school. Our kids are quick to hug us and tell us about their weekend,” said Ms. McKee. “Despite COVID, our kids see us trying to make the best of it and that makes them want to make the best of it.”
When asked about the possibility of creating a sequel, the McDowell team doesn’t say yes or no at first. But then Ms. Fountain suddenly gets an idea for creating a song about “The New Normal.” And Mr. Johnson says he’s already writing down the lyrics in his head.
Check out the full ”It’s Ok Not to Be Ok” music video below! As the McDowell staff sings and demonstrates so beautifully, don’t forget:
It’s ok not to be ok
It’s ok if you need to step away
Don’t be ashamed to say
I’m having a bad day
It’s ok not to be ok