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Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Sep 8, 2019

Breathe for Change: Tools for teacher well-being and mindfulness

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Breathe for Change: Tools for teacher well-being and mindfulness

By Angela Watson

This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Dr. Ilana Nankin talks about Breathe For Change — a wellness program that helps teachers combat burnout and stress through yoga.

I would like to introduce you today to Dr. Ilana Nankin. She describes herself as an unstoppable entrepreneur, award-winning teacher educator and researcher, and passionate former public school teacher creating a more socially just and conscious world for teachers, students, and entire school communities.

Ilana conducted a dissertation study as part of her PhD program that brought teachers around the world together to pioneer new ways to overcome stress and burnout. Her research revealed the critical connection between teacher well-being and student learning, and the power that can become possible when teachers and students use mind-body wellness practices as a vehicle for social change.

Inspired by her research, Ilana founded Breathe For Change in January 2015 and created the world’s only 200-hour wellness and yoga training specifically for educators. Since then, B4C has certified about 3,000 educators as Wellness Champions, who are now positively impacting hundreds of thousands of students and community members throughout the country and world, and they’re just getting started.

Illana will tell you more about the resources available through Breathe for Change today, and everything’s available at breatheforchange.com — monthly webinars, plus videos, curriculum and trainings, and so on, and all of it is either free or priced affordably for schools.

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ANGELA: Tell me about what you’ve learned through your research and experience about the connection between teacher wellbeing and student learning.

ILANA: So, this really all started with my own experience as a Pre-K teacher in San Francisco. When I was teaching, I was so stressed, and overwhelmed, and overworked, and that’s when I first found yoga and these wellness practices, and it completely transformed my own life and my well-being. I ended up integrating so many of the practices into my classroom with my kids and just saw remarkable transformations in them social-emotionally and academically. I was like, “There is something going on here that needs to be further explored and shared with the world.” So, I ended up pursuing my Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin.

My research with teachers only further revealed how universal the issue of teacher stress and burnout truly is, and how powerful these wellness and social-emotional learning practices can truly be for both teachers’ and students’ lives. And it was through living and breathing these diverse teacher stories from around the world, and seeing them start to implement some of these wellness practices that I was teaching them, it was just so clear. I was like, “Nothing is going to stop me. I’m starting an organization that aims to enhance the health and well-being of teachers, students, and entire school communities.” That was in January 2015, and that’s really how and when Breathe for Change was born.

I know the need for this work is so, so great. I’m excited to have you share this stuff with our listeners. One pathway to teacher well-being that Breathe for Change focuses on is mindfulness. Can you talk to us about what that practice looks like for educators?

Oh, absolutely. I think one of the things that is so often under prioritized in education is the educator’s self-care and their well-being. In Breathe for Change, we think about mindfulness as this present moment awareness and gaining these tools and practices to be able to show up fully as yourself in the moment, and to be able to take these deep breaths when you may want to react, and just take a pause to respond. How can you bring mindfulness into every interaction that you have? I think one of the powerful things about the work that we do at Breathe for Change is that we’re not just teaching teachers how to bring mindfulness into the classroom with their students.

We’re teaching them how to embody these practices for themselves. Whether it’s through mindful listening, or it’s through mindful eating, or it’s through mindful communication. If our teachers aren’t embodying them for themselves, then there’s no way that our kids are going to walk away with these tools and practices that are authentic, and real, and that can actually transform their lives and their academic success, and just their overall success as human beings.

And so, throughout our entire 200-hour wellness and yoga training, we are constantly focusing teacher’s attention on how to become more mindfully aware of how they’re showing up in the world, and ultimately, how that impacts their relationships in their communities.

I really think that is the missing piece, because so often when we look at the curriculum, there’s no focus on who is the person showing up in this classroom. How is that person feeling? We can teach kids these kinds of conflict resolution and all the social-emotional strategies, but if we’re showing up and we haven’t unpacked our own biases, if we haven’t dealt with our own trauma, if we’re not getting rest and sleep, if we’re not taking care of our bodies, then we’re not modeling that for kids. It’s not going to show up in an authentic way. It’s going to become one more thing on the plate that you have to teach kids how to do rather than, this is who I am, this is how I live, this is how I manage everything, and I want to share that with students because it’s a real life skill. So, I love what you’re saying there about embodying these practices.

Totally, and in Breathe for Change, we’ve sort of coined our social-emotional learning curriculum as instead of just SEL, we tag on the F to SEL, which spells SELF — Social-Emotional Learning and Facilitation — because we believe it’s so critically important for teachers to be living and breathing these practices that we’re here to teach our students. If we’re not doing the work for ourselves, then that diminishing cycle of our own well-being is going to negatively impact the way that we’re showing up for our students, which will have huge ripple effects, which is exactly what my dissertation research revealed, and then, what my ongoing interactions and trainings with thousands of teachers are showing across the country.

I know one pathway to teacher well-being that you support is teachers practicing yoga. Can you talk about some of the benefits with that and how this can be helpful?

Oh absolutely. At Breathe for Change, we run the world’s only 200-hour wellness and yoga teacher training that’s specifically for educators. So, teachers leave our 18-day training as certified yoga instructors. What sets us apart is our curriculum is completely aligned and supports educators, so everything is through the lens of education and social-emotional learning.

The reason why Breathe for Change lives at the intersection of yoga, education, and social justice is because yoga is not just about the asana, or the physical practice of yoga. Yoga in and of itself means union. It’s like that alignment with your inner and your outer world. It’s how you show up to every single moment. There’s philosophical underpinnings of the practice of yoga, and meditation is a part of the practice of yoga.

It really encompasses so much more than just what you think of like, warrior two, for example, or dancer’s pose. What we’ve found is that when teachers are practicing, whether it’s the physical practice of yoga that opens their door to this self-care practice, or the ethical and emotional aspects of yoga that bring them in, or it’s the spiritual aspects that open their door to realize the importance of self-care.

The practice of yoga is life-changing and there are physiological benefits. It shows to reduce stress. It enhances overall performance. It reduces chances of heart attack, or blood pressure issues. The research is all over the place and it’s growing that you chose the physiological and psychological benefits of yoga.

As it relates to education, teachers are living in such a stressful environment all the time. There are so many to-do lists to check off, there are standards they need to meet. They’re trying to support their diverse students, who are coming into the classrooms with such unique challenges every single day. If they’re not equipped with tools and practices to be able to center them, and ground them, and support them in responding rather than reacting, then we’re going to see the issue of teacher burnout, and the retention issues only increase, which is not what we need, or what we want, or what’s going to support our kids. And so, the practice of yoga as a self-care practice is huge for teachers. Then, we’re also seeing the benefits on our students, too.

So, when teachers are practicing it like me, they’re like, “Oh, my gosh. I can integrate mindful movement into my classroom for transitions, or maybe I do three collective breaths with my kids when they come in from recess. Or, we can share these beautiful nonviolent communication practices or other communication tools that will support us in our learning.”

When teachers are practicing yoga, in the whole sense of the word, including the physical, they’re also more likely to realize the power of integrating these practices in the classroom.

Do you think it’s important for teachers to establish their own practices of well-being, such as mindfulness or yoga, first before introducing them to students?

100%, and that’s why in our curriculum, we have this transformational progression. We start our trainings with a focus on the transformation of self so that teachers can first and foremost enhance their own well-being and prioritize their own self-care.

Then, from that foundation of well-being within ourselves as educators, then we move into the transformation of relationships. How can I show up fully and enhance well-being in all of my relationships? Whether that’s my relationships with my students, my relationships with my colleagues, my relationships with my own family, my kids’ families … the list goes on.

And then, from that foundation of well-being within myself and my relationships, then we can talk about, “Okay, how can we utilize wellness, social-emotional learning, yoga, what have you, as vehicles for social change within our entire communities?”

Whether that’s our school community or larger communities. I think it has to start with the self. I’ve seen many social-emotional learning scripted curriculum handed to teachers and many of them are like, “Teach empathy.” Teachers are stressed out, they’re overwhelmed. They’re not experiencing empathy within themselves. It’s like, how can you teach a child to be empathetic if you’re coming on hot and you are angry? That’s not going to work. So, the teachers have to have these practices, hopefully, as a daily practice, and a clear intention in their lives. Because we all know that when we’re doing something and we believe so wholeheartedly, and we feel and are living the benefits, then we’re so much more authentic in our teaching of it.

I think that’s why teachers have to embody and practice mindfulness, yoga, any form of wellness, in order to effectively teach this to our students.

Yeah, it really does start with us, and it’s taken me, honestly, a lifetime to really figure that out because so much of the conditioning is around taking care of others: the children first, it’s all about the students. And so, when we find something that can benefit kids, it’s like immediately, let’s get this prepackaged curriculum, and take it right into the classroom with kids.

The piece of actually embodying it, of actually showing up as this whole, healed person makes all the difference in the world. It’s so much more authentic that way because you’re speaking from your own experience and you’ve seen the power of it yourself.

I just got started with yoga. It’s been almost a year now. It was something that I really resisted for a long time. I just didn’t think it was for me. For one thing, I thought it was a religious thing, or maybe seemed a little woo woo —I just didn’t get it.

And then, I started to explore it a little bit and I realized, okay, first of all, there’s a lot of different types of yoga. There’s stuff that’s much more focused on the physical benefits and it’s very active. There’s stuff that’s much more contemplative and meditative. There’s stuff that gives you a workout and gets your heart rate up. There’s stuff that’s very relaxing.

Whatever your personality type is, whatever your mood is, there are practices that can support that. And it took me a long time to be open to that, and now, I can’t imagine not having yoga in my life. It’s been so transformative.

Totally, and so many of the teachers that come to our training have never practiced yoga before. They’re new to the practice just like you. I found it my first year when I was a hot mess, I was so stressed. I was crying every day, and my roommate would come home, who was also a teacher, and I would say to her, “Why do you look so blissed out? What is going on with you?” She’s like, “Come to yoga with me.” I was like, “I don’t do yoga. No, I’m an athlete. I don’t do that.” And then, she just kept coming home in this state of presence, and I was coming back just overwhelmed completely, and one day I just gave in and said, “Fine, I’ll go.” It was absolutely life-changing.

You’ll feel the benefits right away, and so many of the teachers that come to Breathe for Change aren’t practicing or haven’t been practicing yoga for 20 years, and can now do headstands. They’re drawn to it because they’re seeking something that can support them in really addressing some of the challenges that they’re facing, and the stresses that they’re facing, or that their kids are facing. They just open themselves to experience the benefits and it’s transformational.

So, I’m so excited that you found the practice, too, and it looks so different for everybody. There’s no one way to practice yoga, and really what we always try to do is make the practice as inclusive and accessible for everybody because it can really be transformative for everyone.

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I really love that there’s no right way to practice yoga, and it really opened me up to being in tune with my body a lot more, because I’m a person who tends to get lost in my head. When I think about tapping into my intuition and noticing what my body needs, that’s always been really tough for me. I just sort of power through until things break down and then I’m like, “Why am I such a mess? Why am I exhausted? Why does my back hurt? What’s going on?”

Because I really wasn’t tuning in to my body along the way, and yoga taught me how to do that. It taught me how to just notice things, notice how I’m showing up each day, notice what feels good, what doesn’t feel good, and work with that instead of working against it, and trying to force yourself to keep going through. It’s just been a really transformative mindset.

Totally. And as educators, like you were saying before, we’re such givers. We want to give, give, give to everyone else, to our students, to our communities. It’s our natural state of being and where I think we can get into trouble is we give so much of ourselves that we forget to give that same love, nurturing, and support to ourselves.

So, it starts inside with us. And then, when we are healed, whole, and healthy, then we’re able to make the change that we want. I really appreciate that Breathe for Change focuses on teacher and student wellness as this vehicle for social change. I’m wondering if you can share a little bit more about how these practices cultivate equity and inclusion.

Most of yoga and wellness spaces are really inaccessible, especially for the communities that are underserved or that aren’t middle to upper class. And so, the people who have access to these practices in our communities — it’s definitely inequitable. When we think about using wellness as a vehicle for social change, a lot of it is about integrating inclusive practices, and these wellness practices, into communities that don’t currently have access. But I think the piece that is the most important, and we always talk about this through the lens of equity, inclusion, and diversity, is that we don’t always have the answer for what’s needed.

We’re not coming in to have the savior complex — we don’t have the answers of what the community needs to experience well-being. The community holds those answers. And so, how can we create space that we can co-create a vision of what well-being looks like in our communities, and be able to share these practices in a way that is culturally responsive, and trauma-informed, and inclusive for the diverse communities that we’re serving? That’s going to look totally different in my classroom in San Francisco, for example, than it would in your classroom, than it would in a different educational space. And so, we’re not taking this lens of the one size fits all approach, because that’s not going to work in it.

We have to be able to create, build community, foster vulnerability, and co-create learning in a way that supports the voices and people within the communities that we’re in. I think that’s one of the things that is so important, and also too often missed in conversations around wellness.

What resources do you have available through Breathe for Change to support teachers in implementing the things that we talked about?

Oh, so many! First of all, we have our 200-hour wellness and yoga training, and through that training, educators get a lifetime supply of resources. Everything from our social-emotional learning and facilitation, our SELF curriculum and manual, to our yoga and meditation manuals. Teachers walk away from our 200-hour training unbelievably equipped to be leaders and wellness champions in their communities of this work.

But then, we’re also partnering with schools, districts, and organizations to do shorter trainings at the school level, at the district level, at the organizational level, where we’ll do two-day trainings, one-day trainings, half-day trainings, coaching, and consulting.

We have a wide range of resources and curriculum that teachers and community leaders can use to facilitate mindfulness and wellness experiences, and social-emotional learning in their communities, both with kids and adults.

We just launched our ChangeMaker program for 2019 and ’20. This is a free program for both our wellness champions, our grads of our 200-hour, as well as every single educator and community leader around the world who wants access to our content. Every single month we have a different theme. This month, the theme, because it’s September, it’s the beginning of the school year, is “Breathe for Beginnings.” We have digital content that we give out from different social-emotional learning strategies, like three collective breaths, or chime time, or mindful listening, and accountabilibuddies.

Different practices that teachers can use for themselves, and their kids, and their communities. Then, we also have self-care practices that they can use, and yoga videos, and guided meditations, and different mindful hip-hop songs that teachers can use with kids in the classroom. There are so many different practices and tools and strategies that we’re giving out for free because we really want to make this accessible.

Then, on top of that, I’m doing monthly webinars for our grads, and then a separate one for any educator, or really any human being around the world who wants to learn more effectively how to use and integrate our content into their lives and their teaching. There are lots of different ways that we have access, and we’re trying to make ourselves as available and accessible as possible so that everyone can get a taste of the magic.

So, for information on all those different resources, is that breatheforchange.com?

Yes, you can find our 200-hour application there. You can fill out a professional development interest form. If you want to bring us to your schools, your districts, or organizations, there you can sign up for our ChangeMaker program, which gives you access to all of that content and the monthly webinars that I lead.

Is the 200-hour program held in different locations?

Yeah. So, I started it in Madison, Wisconsin, of all places, which is where I got my Ph.D. in 2015 — in that year, we certified 34 teachers. The next year, we expanded to the Bay Area, and New York City. Actually, Sesame Workshop hosted us in New York, which was the coolest thing ever. Big Bird and Elmo came to our training, and that was the moment where I was like, “There’s no turning back. Elmo and Big Bird said yes.” So, that second year we were in three cities and certified 185 teachers, and the next year we expanded to DC, Austin, and Los Angeles, and certified 600 teachers. Then, this past year, we expanded to 11 cities total. So, we added on Seattle, Denver, Boston, Tampa, and Chicago. And we certified about 1200 people last year, and have only grown more this year.

We’re in about 11 cities running our 200-hour trainings, and we’re providing professional development all over. The ripple effects are happening all over the country, and even around the world, because every teacher that graduates from our training becomes this leader and wellness champion in their community. And so, the ripple effects are huge, and we’re seeing it in our data, and in all of the stories, narratives, and research that we’re collecting. It’s pretty prevalent and amazing.

If someone’s listening to this and they’re interested in the 200-hour, is there a way to help them get funding for that?

Yes. So, one of our key missions at Breathe for Change is to make our trainings as affordable and accessible to educators as possible. Our trainings are already discounted in comparison to other 200-hour trainings that are out there for yoga. Then, we also offer need-based scholarships for those who need additional funding, given their specific circumstances. We also help teachers find access to professional development funds, or other sources of funding in their communities. That looks different depending on what school you’re at, what district you’re at, what funding sources are available locally or nationally.

But we do our best to support the teachers in finding that. And then, we also encourage our teachers to use platforms like DonorsChoose, or GoFundMe, and we’ll help them create those projects for them so that they can get some more funding, if the other sources of funding don’t work.

I love that. This is so awesome, Ilana. I know this is going to be a game changer for a lot of teachers listening. I am so excited to help spread the word.

It is so life-changing. I think one thing that I didn’t mention that I think is just sort of top of mind for me is that teachers that take Breathe for Change, they leave with such life-changing results and shifts within them personally. But what I think is most magical and what sets us apart from any other professional development really is the community of like-minded, passionate, just remarkably brilliant human beings, who care so deeply about changing the world through education. The community that’s formed, the relationships that are built, that shared vision for using wellness as a vehicle for social change — it’s unexplainable in words.

So, people leave with best friends for life. They’re all still sharing resources, sharing best practices, they’re collaborating in their communities together. It’s like a movement. Especially in a profession that can often feel so isolating and you’re behind your closed doors, there’s so much at stake, there’s a lot of pressure. It can feel lonely, and the community that comes out of this is a game-changer for all of our people. I want every teacher to have access to that level of support and love.

I want to close out with a takeaway truth, something for teachers to remember in the week ahead. I’m wondering if you can share something that you wish every teacher understood about their well-being.

So, I’ll take this one from one of my greatest teachers and advisors, and just loves, Parker Palmer, who wrote The Courage to Teach. He and I have conversations all the time. He’s been a big mentor of mine, and he’s come to Breathe for Change trainings, and talked to our teachers. I love him dearly.

One of the things that he always told me is that self-care is never a selfish act. I think that as educators, because we care so deeply about the work, we often feel like we don’t have time for self-care. It’s a burden, or there are so many other things to prioritize. But at the end of the day, when we’re taking care of ourselves, we are taking care of our kids. That is the work that is so critical to build the foundation for high-quality teaching and learning. And so, my truth-telling is, you deserve to take care of you. So, create that space, take that time for you. Take a few moments to take a few deep breaths in the morning when you wake up.

Maybe allow yourself even five minutes to set your intention for the day, or to journal about things that you’re grateful for, or to take a few deep breaths before you’re about to react to something that you, like in the future, may regret. These moments for you are so important and can make such a big difference. So, take them.

Thank you, Advancement Courses, for sponsoring today’s show. Advancement Courses offers over 200 online PD courses in 19 different subject areas for graduate credit and CEUs for K-12 teachers. And right now, they’re donating 10% of every purchase to fund DonorsChoose projects. You can submit your DonorsChoose project to them for a chance to get funded until September 27. To learn more, visit advancementcourses.com/truth.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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