Building Community
Building Community

When educators design and create new schools, and live next gen learning themselves, they take the lead in growing next gen learning across the nation. Other educators don’t simply follow and adopt; next gen learning depends on personal and community agency—the will to own the change, fueled by the desire to learn from and with others. Networks and policy play important roles in enabling grassroots approaches to change.

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Educators know they need #SelfCare, but how can they do that in a profession that inherently encourages putting others first? These examples make self-care concrete and implementable.

We're all a little tired of hearing that we need to practice #SelfCare. We're told as educators to take time for ourselves, to take time off, to say no. Well let's face it, the reality is we are in a profession where we care for growing humans through their learning. We cultivate relationships and use our experiences and our presence to make those relational connections with students and families stronger. Our positions as educators inherently encourage us to put others before ourselves.

And while we are all trying to give ourselves a little #SelfCare, our efforts are met with a conflicting narrative in local news and within communities that educational institutions are subversive, and that the educators within them are bad actors, teaching too much of this but not enough of that, that we are not serving the children in our care well (e.g., Contorno, 2023).

We educators really do need to practice filling our cups so we may fill the cups of others (, but doing so is challenging amid the social and political conflicting narratives that add even more layers of stress to our teaching efforts. Sometimes it can feel like we don’t have the time and tools to practice #SelfCare as we support the children in our communities, strive to meet their individual needs, and reconceptualize what teaching feels like and learning looks like, as I’ve written about before in an article for the Indiana Association for School Principals.

Perhaps what we need is not just a promotion of #SelfCare, but a useful and useable #SelfCareExample (or five) that can make this notion of #SelfCare concrete and implementable.

I'm still no good at taking time off. But I've gotten pretty great at giving myself moments to take time away, even if I'm sitting at my desk.

A Lifetime of Strategies

I have Tourette Syndrome, OCD, and ADHD. In the very beginning when the source of my behaviors was a mystery, my wise parents helped me build strategies for controlling impulses, staying focused, and using what could be a debilitating set of challenges as stepping stones rather than roadblocks.

I have carried those strategies into my adult life. They have evolved as I have grown.

When I stepped into my first classroom as a teacher, I quickly realized that all of the beautiful energy, excitement, and behaviors that are the manifestation of students’ learning and growth—while inspiring—made it challenging for me to filter sensory input, control my tics, and focus on the task of teaching. I had to figure out a way to make my body and my mind be still so that I could do the good work of facilitating a welcoming, engaging, and wonderfully challenging learning environment.

Over time, I developed a large set of self-care strategies that simultaneously helped me be a successful teacher while improving the learning environment for my students. These strategies continue to evolve, and I use them daily. I’d like to share one #SelfCareExample in this blog post and more examples in future posts. Rather than try to mimic what I do, I encourage you to use my examples as inspiration to develop your own set of self-care strategies. What works for one person won't work for someone else, so make these your own.

I offer here examples of how I build space within my professional routines, throughout my day, to breathe. I'm still no good at taking time off. But I've gotten pretty great at giving myself moments to take time away, even if I'm sitting at my desk.

Music shifts my mood and helps me get into the task I'm doing.

#SelfCareExample: Use Music to Transition, Breathe, Reset

When I was a kid, I used to sign everything with "Keep a swing in your step and a song in your heart!" I wrote it on everything. Cards, yearbooks, as a doodle in my notebook … this phrase represented my basic attitude then and remains the lens I use as I walk in the world. There is a constant soundtrack accompanying my daily activities; I have different genres of music—and some specific songs—that I call up when I am excited, nervous, studying, focusing, or cleaning my house. Music shifts my mood and helps me get into the task I'm doing.

And I'm not alone. A body of research has demonstrated that music and strategic music interventions are effective in reducing stress and can be used to impact mood and as a coping strategy.

Strategically Connecting Personal Passion with Professional Practice

Being an educator is kind of like playing mental ping pong all day, everyday, and I found it challenging to move from one class period to the next, to “switch my brain” during a seven-minute passing period. As the day went on, the chaos would continue to build, my stress level would increase, and I would have more and more difficulty focusing.

I developed a crucial self-care strategy to address this challenge: to use music before, during, and between classes to help me transition from class to class. I used music to help me leave the stress of last period behind so that I could be fully present for my next group of students. And the same strategy that helped me transition smoothly throughout my day helped my students do the same, while enriching their learning experience.

I am no longer in a classroom, but I use this same strategy throughout my day as a school principal. For instance, on the drive to work I put on some music that will prepare me for the day ahead: I choose one set of songs when I need to be pumped up for a new project and other songs to help me focus and clear my head to face a challenge. And I don’t work hard at this…I really just flip through my “liked” songs until I find the ones that will move me today. (The trick to establishing and actually using a self-care strategy is to make it doable!)

The music helped us all be present and engage in the immediate learning task more fully.

When I entered my classroom—now my office—I played music that set the tone for the lesson, matched the theme, or was a musical version of whatever we were studying (my favorite). Here is an example of what this looked like:

When my students were researching the history and current relevance of superheroes and supervillains in society, music selections included the Superman theme song, Batman, and the obligatory Star Wars soundtrack. As I prepared for my day, I let my mind think about the character development discussion I would lead while listening to the Imperial March. Students walked in the door hearing Superman soar above the clouds. We all listened as the students copied the agenda on the board, and I took attendance and assessed the wellbeing of the room.

The music helped all of us leave behind the morning ride to school, that thing that happened during the passing period, the parent phone call I needed to make at lunch, that test next period. The music helped us all be present and engage in the immediate learning task more fully.

In my role as principal, I keep my music in my ears more than on an external speaker, but I still keep my soundtrack going. I skip the songs that don’t move me in the moment, and I don’t limit myself to a single genre or artist. When I need inspiration, I choose a song I’ve had on repeat for a bit and start a Spotify radio station with it.

I am bringing my team back to work in person more frequently, and will curate my playlists to inspire collaboration, positivity, and kindness to oneself and each other. As we engage in different projects, the music will shift. My staff’s contributions to the office playlists will enrich the work environment just as learners’ contributions help an educational environment blossom.

I invite you to adapt this #SelfCareExample into a #SelfCareStrategy that meets your individual needs today. It will grow, it will shift, it will evolve. As in all learning, building up this strategy will take thought and time and practice and iteration. Be open to ideas. And consider this: If the #SelfCareStrategy helps you cope, destress, or transition from one task to the next, it will likely do the same for your learning community. Multiple benefits, one strategy! That’s my kind of #SelfCare!

Photo at top courtesy of Young Audiences/Arts for Learning Maryland.

Rebecca Itow headshot

Rebecca Itow (she/her)

Principal, IU High School Online

Dr. Rebecca C. Itow (she/her) is principal of IU High School Online. She earned her Ph.D. in learning sciences from Indiana University and was a public high school teacher. Driven to facilitate safe spaces for learners to navigate their academic journeys in valuable and valued ways, Rebecca researches, designs, and implements responsive online pedagogical practices in digital learning environments. Her work guides current university and community partnerships that innovate online teaching, learning, and design.