Changing the World, One Teacher at a Time, With Yoga

Ilana Nankin, founder of Breathe for Change

Ilana Nankin always wanted to be a teacher. Yet within a year of beginning her teaching career — as a pre-K teacher in San Francisco — she felt the stress and strain that nearly all new teachers experience.

“I absolutely loved working with kids,” Nankin says, “but it was a very stressful time.”

Nankin discovered yoga and found it helped her to destress. Soon, she was using yoga techniques in her classroom.

“I brought in yoga mats, and the kids responded so incredibly to me practicing yoga and doing breathing techniques with them,” she says. “A lot of the kids were experiencing trauma and came from very under-resourced communities, so these practices really transformed the way that they were in the classroom.”

Years later, Nankin moved to Wisconsin to pursue a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. Her passion for teaching remained strong; she wanted to work with and inspire new teachers. But she soon learned that the stress she felt as a new teacher is all too common. Troubled by reports that nearly half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, Nankin searched for ways to ease teachers’ stress.

Breathe for Change is Nankin’s attempt to alleviate teacher stress, improve education and “change the world, one teacher at a time.” The nonprofit organization, founded in 2015, provides yoga teacher training to classroom teachers. The goal isn’t to transition teachers out of the classroom, but to equip them with tools and skills they can use to manage their own stress and to help their students and fellow teachers cope with challenges.

Where did you get the idea for Breathe for Change?

I care so much about supporting teachers. So when I was working on my dissertation, I wanted to showcase how important it is to build community among teachers, because I’d seen that that’s what teachers need the most. Teaching can be such an isolating experience if there are not the spaces for teachers to connect and reflect.

During this time, I ended up getting yoga teacher training because I was really stressed out. When my education students found out I was a yoga teacher, they asked me to start teaching yoga to them. I did, and when they all dispersed to teaching placements in schools throughout Madison, they started using these yoga techniques with their students.

They would tell me, “I tried these techniques with kids who were really having trouble focusing, and it totally shifted the way that they were able to learn.” My students had the idea of teaching yoga to other teachers. They said, “You’ve changed our lives with yoga and mindfulness, and it’s changing our kids. We need this.”

How does Breathe for Change work?

I worked with my yoga trainer and other yoga teachers to develop a curriculum that fits the needs of classroom teachers. I took the regular 200-hour yoga teacher training curriculum and made it relevant for pre-K through college-level educators, which includes social workers, psychologists, counselors, with the intention of supporting children and teachers.

We created one-minute, three-minute, five-minute breath breaks, techniques, meditations and practices that they can use in their classrooms. A teacher who completes Breathe for Change training isn’t getting the yoga certification that any yoga instructor would get; instead, they’re getting tangible techniques that they can implement in their classrooms with kids.

We have meditations for teachers to give to students right before they take a test, activities to reduce stress and activities they can do at the end of the day to appreciate others in their classroom. Things that are very simple, take very little time and can be integrated into the crazy schedules that teachers already have.

Your concern for teacher well-being is apparent. Why is teacher well-being so important?

Right now, there are so many demands and pressures on teachers. It’s a very standardized system; most of education is very test-driven and all about meeting certain standards. Teachers are so overworked and overwhelmed trying to meet the needs of their districts and their principals and all of the mandates.

I was shocked when I learned that nearly 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Half of our teachers in this country go into the career thinking they’re going to be in it forever but leave!

I saw that happen over and over again with new teachers. For many of them, being a teacher is all they ever dreamed. But when the realities hit in the classroom, they feel so disempowered. They never feel a sense of validation, and they always feel overwhelmed. In many places, the conditions are so awful and the teachers have no control over those conditions, so in many cases, they burn out and leave.

How does Breathe for Change support teachers?

Right now, professional development is always focused on mandates and tests and curriculum because education is always changing. But we’re forgetting that teachers are human beings, too.

Breathe for Change connects teachers and creates spaces for them to think deeply about who they are as human beings and how they want to build community in their own lives and classrooms. We’re giving teachers a space to learn how to take care of their well-being in a stressful environment.

How many teachers have participated in Breathe for Change?

We held the first 16-day, 200-hour Breathe for Change teacher training program in Madison, Wisconsin, in July 2015. Forty educators attended; most from Madison, but also teachers from San Francisco, Chicago, D.C. and Colorado. Thirty-four teachers completed the 200 hours and are officially certified yoga teachers, ready to bring these techniques into their classrooms.

What’s next for Breathe for Change?

We want to take this to districts and schools all over the nation. This year, we’re going to spend time developing new programs, thinking about what makes the most sense for teachers and how we can make the biggest impact. We’ll probably end up developing daylong workshops or a few hourlong workshops, and maybe a series of certifications for teachers. Then the 200-hour training — like the one we did this summer — will be the highest level of training. I’m also conducting a research study to show the effect of these practices on teachers’ and students’ lives.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

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