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88. Using Wellness in the Classroom as a Vehicle for Social Change with Dr. Ilana Nankin from Breathe For Change

Stress, anxiety and teacher burnout are a reality in today’s schools. When teachers are struggling to manage their emotions, students are more likely to be dysregulated as well. We’re always talking on The Balanced Educator Podcast and Blog about the importance for us teachers to care for ourselves first, to fill our cups first so that we can be our best selves in the classroom and be positive models of self-regulation, kindness and compassion for our students.

Dr. Ilana Nankin is helping teachers learn to care for themselves first and how to share wellness in their classrooms as a vehicle for social change with her innovative organization Breathe For Change. We are so excited to share her story and her message with you today on The Balanced Educator Podcast and in her guest blog post below.

Why I Breathe For Change

By Dr. Ilana Nankin

Founder & CEO, Breathe For Change

“In a community, first you have to love yourself, because if you don’t love yourself, you can’t love anybody else.” 

— Patrick (“Miss Ilana’s” Pre-K Student, 4-years-old, 2010 – pictured below)

The 3,000+ remarkable educators who have graduated from Breathe For Change’s Wellness, Social-Emotional Learning and Yoga Teacher Training know all too well why these wise words of my darling 4-year-old Pre-K Superstar, Patrick, matter SO much. 

As educators, we give, give, give so much of ourselves to our students. On the one hand, this willingness to give of ourselves to others is what makes us such amazing leaders and human beings. Yet, on the other hand, when we forget to give that same self-love and self-care to ourselves — and no longer embody the present, loving, and kind ways of being we hope to instill in our students — we limit our capacity to do the critically important work we are here to do for our students and our world. 

Teacher well-being is the foundation of a thriving education system and society, and it is needed now more than ever. 73% of teachers report feeling extreme stress everyday, and more and more teachers leave the profession each year. As my Ph.D. research and other studies have revealed, this diminishing cycle of well-being negatively impacts our students social-emotional and academic outcomes. As a profession and society, we must change. We must take better care of our teachers. For, as my great teacher and mentor, Parker Palmer, reminds us, “Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” 

The beauty of it all is that change in education is happening. And I am starting this blog to reveal the stories behind this change. 

Bay Area, Fall 2018, 200-hour Training Cohort

My WHY: Why I am called to start this blog

I am starting this blog to bring to light what can become possible when we, as educators and community leaders, actually commit to taking care of our own well-being and prioritize the most important person in our life (yes, that’s you!). 

I am launching this blog to create a platform that honors and highlights the inspiring stories of the thousands of Breathe For Change Wellness Champions who are creating positive ripple effects in their lives, classrooms, and entire school communities. I am launching this blog to share my authentic voice, passion and love for using wellness as a vehicle for social change, and to continue building a community of inspiring, diverse, brilliant educators and community leaders who share this life-giving purpose. I am writing this blog to unite experts in the field of education, wellness, and social justice – and to recognize that together, we create a more socially just and peaceful world. And, last but not least, I am writing this blog because Breathe For Change is building a movement and facilitating a societal shift toward collective well-being, and I want YOU to join us in Changing the World, One Teacher at a Time.

How Breathe For Change Was Born 

As a Pre-K teacher, I loved my students beyond words, but remember constantly feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and overworked, with little to no tools to take care of myself… That is, until my dear friend, fellow pre-k teacher and roommate Lauren came home looking absolutely blissed out. “Why do you look so calm?” I asked, defeated. “Come try yoga with me,” she insisted. I resisted for weeks: I don’t do yoga, I’m an athlete! When I couldn’t take the stress anymore I begrudgingly went along… and I never looked back since.

Practicing yoga and meditation each morning before school completely transformed my life and my well-being. Because of the inspiring change I was experiencing in myself, I decided to integrate some of the wellness practices into my classroom, and saw remarkable transformations in my students, both social-emotionally and academically. The ripple effects only grew from there… and I couldn’t help but want to take my exploration further. The powerful connection between teacher well-being and student learning that I was experiencing first hand was too important to stay within the walls of my own classroom. So I made the leap of faith to become a teacher educator and pursue my Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin to explore the critical connection between teacher well-being and effective teaching.

For my dissertation, I followed 8 amazing pre-service teachers I had taught for 2 years in UW’s teacher education program into their first year of teaching to explore how they would take up their ideals of social justice in action in diverse classrooms around the world. These passionate educators who, like me, had intended to stay in the profession for life, quickly became so stressed and overwhelmed, and this negative cycle of well-being impacted their ability to meet the social-emotional and academic needs of their students.

As Christa, one of the eight teachers I followed, put it, “When I am calm and collected, my students are calm and collected.” Or as Cynthia would say, “When I go insane, the kids go insane.” The critical connection between teacher well-being and student learning was evident, and I knew something needed to change.

As the universal issue of teacher stress and burnout continued to surface through my research and outside studies, I was simultaneously teaching courses to pre-service teachers who were working in schools throughout Madison. When my wonderful students found out that I was a newly-certified yoga teacher, they thought it was “so cool,” and decided to rent out space in the student union for me to teach them yoga and mindfulness each week in addition to my three-hour education course. Naturally, I was obsessed with this idea, and said “YES!”

Each day, different teachers would come up to me and enthusiastically say things like: “Oh my gosh, Ilana! The kids who typically have anxiety attacks before tests are now utilizing the mindfulness techniques you taught us, and their test scores are increasing!” Or, “the students who experience so much trauma in the home are learning how to breathe and everything is improving!” Story after story after story continued to come my way. And, I knew I had to do something. 

On December 11, 2014, the last day of my course, I looked at my phenomenal pre-service teachers, and said “We have 3 hours left together… how do you want to spend it?” “Let’s take this international!!” they collectively screamed. “Train us, Ilana. We need more, this is just the beginning.” I could feel the infinite potential of what could become possible if we, as a society, actually prioritize teacher (and student) well-being. And, I knew in that moment that I would not stop pursuing this mission until collective well-being becomes a reality for all teachers, students, and communities, everywhere. In those three hours of dreaming big, the vision for Breathe For Change was born. 

The Impact We’ve had in 4 Short, Momentous Years

Since then, I have been unstoppable in my pursuit to Change the World, One Teacher At a Time. In January, 2015, I set out to start the world’s only internationally recognized 200-hour Wellness and Yoga Teacher Training specifically for educators. In just a few months, I (miraculously) managed to inspire 34 educators to commit 16 days of their precious summer to this “thing” that had never existed before. And, while my vision was huge from the start, I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined what would unfold: 

  • 2015: 34 educators in Madison, WI
  • 2016: 185 educators in Madison, San Francisco Bay Area and New York City (hosted at Sesame Workshop… when Elmo and Big Bird walked in, I knew we were onto something!)
  • 2017: 600+ educators with the additions of Los Angeles, DC and Austin
  • 2018: 1,100+ educators in eleven major U.S. cities

It’s now 2019, and since 2015, we have certified more than 3,000 educators as Breathe For Change Wellness Champions and Yoga Teachers. They are changing the world, and I am simply blown away.

Inaugural B4C Training in Madison, 2015

First NYC Training @ Sesame, NYC, 2016

I am thrilled to share that our graduates are now collectively enhancing the health and well-being of more than 500,000 students across the country. Both qualitative and quantitative surveys of our graduates report the following outcomes:

  • Enhanced overall well-being, physical well-being, and emotional well-being.
  • Increased energy levels, and perceived ability to positively influence others’ lives.
  • Increased perceived ability to control the important things in their lives and teaching.
  • Increased confidence in their ability to address personal issues and deal with emotional challenges calmly.
  • Increased ability to create a relaxed atmosphere with their students. 
  • Strengthened capacity to build community and cultivate human connection.
NYC, Summer 2017, 200-hour Training Cohort
LA, Fall 2017, 200-hour Training Cohort

The beauty of our training is not that our teachers walk away with yet another scripted curriculum to teach to students. They walk away having lived, breathed, and experienced the change they want to see in their lives and their classrooms – and recognize the value of first and foremost, taking care of themselves. They walk away personally transformed and empowered and equipped with tools use wellness and social-emotional learning as vehicles for social change in their classrooms and communities. Branigan, one of my remarkable Boston Summer 2019 Wellness Champions couldn’t have described it better: “I have truly discovered and learned to value myself, which has empowered me to bring substantial change to my community in loving, supportive, and inclusive ways. My eyes have been opened to so much beauty and value in the world around me, and given me the tools to share this with others. My community, my relationships, and my soul are forever changed.”

Breathe For Change Curricular Progression

Her words, along with the thousands of Wellness Champions who I get the honor of keeping in close touch and collaborate ongoingly with, inspire me everyday to continue standing for a world where we all feel inspired, worthy and called to lead with love – and where we all recognize how amazing we are inside and out. And I won’t stop.

Where We Are Headed

With each new educator in our movement, we get one step closer to living in a world where all people are inspired, educated, and healthy inside and out. We must ensure that wellness and social-emotional learning becomes accessible to all educators and embedded into the fabric of entire schools. To get there, we are now partnering with schools, districts, and organizations to bring professional development to a broader community. We also launched our digital ChangeMaker program, which provides educators access to free monthly resources and webinars (led by me!) so that every educator has the opportunity to join our movement in a meaningful way.

And, of course, we will continue to bring together wellness-minded educators to build a strong foundation of community, well-being, and knowledge through our 200-Hour Wellness, SEL Teacher Trainings. 

Our 200-hour wellness and yoga teacher training for educators, as well as our self-care and social-emotional learning (SEL*F) professional development for schools, districts, and organizations move through a four-layered transformational curricular progression: from Transformation of Self → Transformation of Relationships → Transformation of Community → Integration and Renewal. Patrick so eloquently reminds us, “If we don’t love ourselves, we can’t love anybody else,” which is why we always begin from within. And, from this foundation of well-being within ourselves, we can create ripple effects of well-being in our relationships and communities.

My WHY: Changing the World, One Teacher at a Time

I believe whole-heartedly that transformation in education starts from within, and that it is essential for us, as educators, to take care of ourselves so that we can do the critically important work of taking care of our kids and communities. I also know that we cannot do this alone… and we don’t have to. We can lean on one another and be each other’s “Accountabili-buddies.” Helen Keller reminds us, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” 

Every conversation I have, every page of curriculum I write, every new person I meet, every training I lead… somehow, someway is connected to our cause to cultivate collective well-being. I dream about Breathe For Change being accessible to educators everywhere. When obstacles get in the way of our big vision to enhance the health and well-being of teachers, my heart breaks (for a moment) and I reconnect to my WHY: my students who are my greatest teachers, and my mission to transform lives through humanizing education. Many people say it’s important to separate professional and personal, but I live for this vision. There is nothing that lights me up more than supporting my fellow educators to realize their own light, embrace their dreams, and step into their leadership. My profession is personal, and I love that. There’s no way I’d rather live than for a cause far greater than myself, yet so deeply connected to who I am.

While I know that my fiery passion has allowed educators to breathe change into their lives and communities, I recognize that my drive to constantly grow bigger and impact more people can get in the way of me “practicing what I preach.” I teach others to take time to pause, relax, and self reflect; yet, if I am being totally honest with myself, that’s what I struggle with the most. I am focused on where we need to go and how we can improve; I often forget to take those precious little moments to be present with what is, and appreciate all that has unfolded. I forget to take time to actually feel the impact of what we’ve built. 

This is what this blog is about for me: a space to reflect, cherish, and celebrate the journey, a space to embody what I teach. At Breathe For Change, we call our social-emotional learning curriculum, SEL*F (social-emotional learning and *facilitation*); we add the “F” because we must embody the self-care practices we teach. So cheers to writing to you, my version of that.

Let’s bring teachers’ and students’ inspiring voices to the forefront of education. This is my chance to reveal what becomes possible when we prioritize the WHOLE in every teacher and student, as opposed to just the holes students fill out with their #2 pencils on standardized tests. So, let’s take 3 collective breaths, and begin.

You can learn more about Breathe For Change in the following ways:

Website: breatheforchange.com

Facebook: Breathe4Change

Instagram: @breathe4change 

Email: [email protected]

Free B4C Resources – Sign up for our ChangeMaker Program!

Let us know in the comments below, how will you breathe for change in your classroom?

If you would like ready-to-use mindfulness resources made by teachers for your classroom, start your free Educalme Classroom trial to get unlimited access to the first unit of our full-year program!

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