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Yoga For Teachers: An Interview with Breathe For Change

[Note: This is an interview transcript, and has been edited for length and clarity.]

Breathe For Change is a growing movement of educators focused on teaching and learning for peace, love, and social justice. Their vision is to allow all people to be educated and empowered as their whole and brilliant selves in their lives, relationships, and communities. Breathe For Change unites, trains, and supports educators in wellness and social-emotional learning practices that enhance individual and collective well-being. Their global community is creating an education system that unleashes the full potential of every student AND teacher as a vehicle for social change. We recently sat down with Breathe For Change founders Dr. Ilana Nankin and Michael Fenchel to learn more about the Breathe For Change story, as well as their work on social-emotional learning and facilitation for educators.

Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds, your biographies, and how that ties into your positions at Breathe For Change right now.

Ilana: Sure. I’ll start. I’m a former pre-K teacher, and I taught pre-K in a Spanish dual immersion school in San Francisco. And when I was teaching – just like most teachers are – I was incredibly stressed, overwhelmed and overworked, which led me to try out yoga as a de-stressor. I started going to yoga classes almost every day and it totally transformed my well-being – I ended up being inspired to integrate some of the wellness practices I was learning into my classroom with my little pre-K superstars. I found that it just completely transformed them, both social-emotionally and academically, and I was like “there’s something going on here – this is incredible!”

Around that time I started pursuing my Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin and became a teacher educator. Working with teachers in training – these teachers who were super passionate, ready to be in education forever, and committed to social justice – I saw this pattern of these kinds of teachers being so stressed, overwhelmed, and overworked. In many cases, they had absolutely no tools to take care of themselves. And as a result, I saw this diminishing cycle of well-being across all of their stories that was negatively impacting their teaching and their ability to fulfil on their intentions for social justice.

I had continued pursuing yoga while I was in that program and when I completed my 200-hour yoga teacher certification, my student teachers found out and wanted to try some classes with me, with the intention of bringing some of the techniques into their classrooms just like I had with my pre-K students. We started renting space at the Union to do a weekly yoga class for teachers, and the results were remarkable. As well as using the techniques themselves, teachers were bringing mindfulness, breathing exercises, and other yoga strategies to their students in the classroom. Day after day I was hearing a different story from a teacher about the benefits of these practices on the kids and on their teaching.

Michael: My story starts at one of these trainings – Ilana invited me to attend and see what it was all about, and what truly inspired me was seeing these teachers engaged in authentic self-care. These teachers, who are naturally giving people living their lives for a greater purpose, learning to take care of themselves and learning to really be who they are fully. Not just being here for others, but to realize that in order to show up for others we have to show up fully for ourselves.

Ilana: And…when Michael showed up to the training, he was there for a few minutes and all of a sudden started writing furiously in his journal. So he’s writing fiercely in his journal and – because I had been friends with him for a while – I knew that when Michael gets inspired he expresses himself with poetry, so I looked over and I said “What are you writing?” and he said “A poem.” I asked him to read it in front of all the teachers. And so he read this beautiful poem about what he was seeing and all the teachers were crying and it was this moment of beauty and everyone’s heart was so open and full. And after the training – it must’ve been a few days later – Michael came up to me and is like “alright, give me two months and we’re going to turn this into a real business and grow a worldwide movement.”

What was the state of self-care for educators when you founded Breathe For Change – what types of patterns were you seeing? Why were there so few self-care resources for educators?

Ilana: I can speak to my dissertation research specifically about that – I was following these 8 teachers and a lot of them had entered teaching with really healthy habits like running and going to the gym and some going to yoga and eating healthy. And they all went in with healthier habits, but as they got into the work, they were working 16-hour days, they were overwhelmed by second-hand trauma. The workload ended up overwhelming them so they started losing touch with these healthier habits and started replacing them with more unhealthy habits. So I was seeing some of these teachers, rather than running off their stress, they were smoking off their stress, or rather than cooking nutritionally, they were quickly eating a fast unhealthy meal that they could buy in the midst of the busy day. So it wasn’t like there was nothing available, they were just not prioritizing their well-being.

Michael: I think fortunately there are more people realizing that this is a problem, so there are some attempts at teacher self-care. But one thing that really sets Breathe For Change apart is that it’s by teachers, for teachers. It’s community-driven, it’s not just like an administration saying, for example, “you need to take care of yourself” without providing any real support on that or any community or any accountability. Breathe For Change has created, first of all, a super in-depth training, probably the most in-depth educator well-being training in the world. But the real strength is the community and having it not just be some top-down mandate for self-care. Rather, we operate in a mentality of taking care of ourselves together, which has been something that works a lot better for teachers.

Ilana: And I think another thing that distinguishes the work that we do from other organizations is our approach to teacher enablement. Mindfulness and well-being are becoming hot topics in education, and in order to provide these practices to teachers or moreso students, we see institutions bringing outside experts into the schools. We feel that’s not a sustainable or scalable way to transform education. You need to develop the champions and leaders of these practices within school communities, so that you’re equipping actual educators who are part of the communities to then bring this transformational work and these practices to the students, their colleagues, and their families. That’s the way to really have ripple effects that are sustainable and long-term.

Why do you think this is the status quo in education?

Ilana: Ooh, there’s lots of things to say to that. *laughs*

Michael: I think it’s become very standardized and outcome-driven in a lot of ways. It’s all about these tests that students take. So we’re focused on a very narrow set of outcomes as a destination to reach, as opposed to really considering the broader perspective of what it means to receive an education. I think with that mentality, it’s really easy to forget about the human aspect of education. And specifically, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that there is considerable research to show that teacher well-being is directly related to student performance, both social-emotional and academic. If teachers aren’t present, calm, and able to teach at their best then everybody is impacted by that. But even so, because the measurements are almost always directly on the student performance side,, it’s easy to just look at that and say “you know what, we’ve got to have the teachers work harder. We’ve got to put more work on their plate,” without recognizing that there is that self-care element that absolutely has to be considered.

Ilana: First of all, I think particularly in under-resourced school districts and areas, kids, community members, and teachers are coming into schools having experienced so many traumas or challenges in their lives that aren’t being addressed social-emotionally in schools. Even so, the teachers are still expected to have their kids reach a particular standard, which is so unequitable because we’re expecting kids across the board to perform at the same level when they’re coming in with such different experiences. But because the students have to perform, and because teachers truly care, it’s the teachers who take on that stewardship of caring for the social-emotional well-being of the student, which is a tremendous responsibility on top of the academic performance they’re trying to cultivate.

Another aspect is that teacher’s voices are so often silenced in the larger educational, political, and societal conversation. Oftentimes the policies that are made in education and what’s happening at a state or national level in terms of expectations and standards are made by people who are not at the ground with kids in the classroom every day. And so you have teachers navigating a widening gap between the requirements imposed by hierarchy and the requirements imposed by the realities of the classroom.

I also think that teacher preparation and ongoing mentorship is a core contributing factor to teachers’ success and/or burnout in the classroom. The teachers who I followed for my dissertation still meet as a community of practice – we’re all over the world and we’d still have these monthly community calls and would undertake ongoing reflections. They continuously tell me that it was that sacred space that gave them hope and helped them not leave the classroom because they felt so isolated, so disconnected, and so undersupported. People don’t realize that teaching can be a really isolating profession because they’re not necessarily collaborating all the time, even though you would think that teaching is collaborative and you’d hope that it is. They have so much paperwork to fill out, so many evaluations to do, it often becomes the opposite of what I view as high-quality education. Ideally we’d have collaboration and engagement and dialogue, but teachers are often left in their own siloed spaces. This is why community is so critical to Breathe For Change – ongoing mentorship and spaces for teachers to engage and interact and build community is a critical factor to supporting and enhancing teacher well-being. This structure excels at really keeping teachers engaged and inspired as they’re dealing with the struggles of their everyday lives.

What do you feel like the specific advantages are in terms of yoga over any other mindfulness or well-being practice for these teachers? How does Breathe For Change deliver on those advantages?

Ilana: One thing that I would just immediately say is that yoga is so much more than the physical practice of yoga, or the yoga pose that so many people percieve yoga to be, especially in the west. Meditation is actually considered to be one of the 8 limbs of yoga, and similarly the physical posture practice is only one of 8 limbs. When we say yoga, what yoga means is “union” by definition. It’s so much more than physical – it’s emotional, it’s spiritual, it’s mental. At Breathe For Change, teachers get their 200-hour yoga teacher certification – and it’s an internationally recognized certification. But on top of that, our curriculum is designed to truly enhance overall mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, career well-being; we’re delivering on all aspects of human well-being.

Our training first focuses on transformation of self, where we invite our teachers to cultivate their intentions for their own well-being and build that foundation for wholeness and self-care and self-love so they can eventually go out into the world and do everything they’re meant to do. From there we transition into transformation of relationships, which poses the question of, without this foundation of your own well-being, how could you show up fully in your relationships? And then from transformation of relationships we move into transformation of community, and that’s really when we explore how to utilize these practices as vehicles for social change within our community. Then we end with integration and renewal because we know that with every cycle of transformation, you need to integrate and renew what you’ve learned so you can start the cycle again. Other sessions include meditation, anatomy, social-emotional learning, and a number of other workshops that take trainees through that transformational progression.

One other thing I’d want to add is that social justice is integrated into every single aspect of our training and so we’re constantly talking about how we address issues of injustice. So again, the physical practice is only two hours of our training every day. The rest of our training is more focused on all these other layers. We’re talking about community building exercises, and we’re giving educators communication tools that constitute this holistic approach to well-being.

Tell us about the program’s success so far – what’s the state of the union for Breathe For Change?

Ilana: Sure, I’ll start with the year-to-year update. In 2015 when I first started, we certified 34 teachers in Madison, WI. And then the next year in 2016 we expanded to 2 more cities – New York and San Francisco – and we certified 185 teachers across 3 cities. And then this last year in 2017, we certified 600 teachers across 6 cities and we also launched the first iteration of our Digital Learning program to provide ongoing support, coaching, and resources to our graduates.

For 2018, we’re certifying 1,700 teachers across 11 cities throughout the United States. And when I say certified, I’m talking about two certifications – first they receive their Certified Yoga Teacher Certification through Yoga Alliance, which is the internationally recognized yoga teacher association. They also receive their Breathe For Change Wellness Champion Certification, which qualifies them to lead social-emotional learning and wellness programs in their schools and in their classrooms. This year we’re also partnering with Filament Games and are going to be launching our Breathe For Change app will offer digital courses for educators globally. That is such a huge step for us because it’ll really make our curriculum and our resources accessible around the world to anyone who’s interested, which is already millions of people.

Are there any specific components you want to highlight in the 2018 curriculum?

Ilana: I can speak a bit more about the social-emotional learning component of what we’re doing because I think it’s super important. We refer to our socio-emotional learning curriculum as “SEL*F.” In general social-emotional learning is called SEL, and it’s a big buzzword that’s getting attention all over the country and it’s really exciting that socio-emotional learning is becoming more mainstream and prioritized for our kids, in our schools. But what happens a lot of times is these social-emotional learning curriculums are scripted and teachers are handed this curriculum that has them going through this rote process of “this is how you teach empathy” and “kids, this is empathy.” But they’re not necessarily taught how to embody empathy, and in order for kids to understand, the kids need to live and breathe these practices and social-emotional learning in their own lives. And so we’ve kind of branded our approach to SEL as SEL*F, where the added F stands for facilitation. This also ties into our belief that socio-emotional learning starts with the self.

The bottom line there is that in our training and in what we’re constantly teaching teachers is that social-emotional learning is not just about teaching some content to the students – it’s about you demonstrating to the students how to “show up,” so they have a model and they can interact with you and learn from you. So often kids come to school with particular behaviors because they don’t have positive role models in their lives. They don’t know how to interact positively with other children or sit and participate actively in school. Basically our belief is that if teachers are really learning how to show up and be social-emotional experts themselves, then kids will develop that capacity, too.

What’s next for Breathe For Change?

Michael: We’ve got a pretty solid set of objectives for the next 3 years. First is that we want to become a truly national presence. This would mean B4C trainings in every state in the country. We will be going global, and we definitely see this as a global movement, but we want to make sure that we build a really solid foundation here in the US education system.

Another objective that’s already underway is that we’re launching a tech product to provide digital learning to educators and communities . This product is a platform to support and unite passionate educators across the globe to bring our huge vision to reality. We’re partnering with Filament Games on developing an absolutely amazing interactive digital curriculum to support our graduates in taking what they learned and having resources and a community to support them as leaders of well-being in schools.

We’re also building towards an offering that is scalable, where any teacher around the world can sign up, get digital support, get really high-quality resources both for their own well-being, and also as leaders in the community. Truth be told, we can only grow the in-person trainings so fast, and we already have thousands of teachers in other countries wanting to collaborate. So we’re launching this digital platform in late 2018, and we’ll be rolling it out to the public. We already have hundreds of teachers as part of our beta program for this, so it’s exciting because we’ve been able to get feedback and really positive responses and as always, let teachers guide what we are creating for other teachers. That’s a huge goal for us – to roll out this digital platform that we can leverage to share resources and really build a global network of educators. As Ilana mentioned we’re going to certify 1,700 teachers across 11 cities in the United States in 2018, which is about 3 times what we did last year, which was in turn about 3 times what we did the year before that. We envision certifying more than 4,000 teachers in 2019. So we’re really focused on growth in the training side of things.

Another big development for us is that we’re starting to interface a lot more with administrations. We’re a grassroots movement of educators, and we’ll always be that. But we also want to have the top-down approach and already we’ve been having more conversations with superintendents and educational researchers. We’re focused on building this movement with a bottom-up approach, but we’re also getting administrations to understand why social-emotional learning, teacher well-being, and mindfulness practices are so valuable. It’s important to have the administrative buy-in so that we can actually change the way the education system works – that’s our big vision, really, is to recreate the education system into a system that not only empowers people to succeed academically and professionally, but also really helps people unleash the power of their minds and bodies to be who they really want to be with their lives.

How can people get involved with Breathe For Change today? Where can they sign up?

Michael: Thanks for asking. We just launched a new website, Breatheforchange.com, and we’re super excited about it. It really lets the world know what’s going on with the movement. On the site there’s really two main ways to get involved. First, you can sign up for a training, which is the absolute best way to get involved. We have teachers travel from around the world to take our trainings. So if a training is not in your city now, you can either request for us to come closer to where you’re at, or you can always travel to take our trainings. Taking a training is absolutely the best way to get involved with B4C. We are also taking pre-registrations for the digital learning “ChangeMaker” program, so you can go check out the ChangeMaker page on our website and you can sign up to be in our first pilot group. We’re going to roll out some early features for people who sign up now and we’re going provide some extra support for those educators who want to be in our first wave of the public release of the ChangeMaker program. It’s really designed to empower educators as change makers in their lives, classrooms, and communities.

So those are the two ways that educators can directly receive support services from B4C. And then there is a third way, which is really just following along and helping us spread the word. This is a movement, and the way it has grown thus far is that all types of passionate, talented people in education, not just classroom teachers, not just people working in school buildings, but all types of people who are stakeholders in education which, you know, truly is every single human in the country, are finding ways to share the word on social media. We’re really active socially, and the word of mouth has been huge for us because there’s just such momentum, and people have such powerful experiences – that’s really how we grow. So follow us on Facebook, check us out on Instagram, and sign up for our newsletter on our website.

Oh, and one other thing – we actually just launched a merchandise store on our website so there’s really cool gear. T-shirts, sweatshirts – we’re going to be releasing yoga mats and yoga gear, so that’s another way for people to rep the movement and support B4C.

Ready to start your own journey towards mindfulness and well-being? Check out the video below to get to know Ilana and Michael a little better and learn more about Breathe for Change. And don’t forget to check out their programs at the Breathe For Change website!

B4C Holiday Update from Breathe For Change on Vimeo.


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