Can Yoga Save Our Schools, One Teacher at a Time?

Breathe For Change, an organization launched last year by teachers for teachers, is on a mission to save our schools, one teacher at a time, by reducing burnout through yoga and mindfulness training.
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Breathe For Change, an organization launched last year by teachers for teachers, is on a mission to save our schools, one teacher at a time, by reducing burnout through yoga and mindfulness training.
Breathe For Change certified yoga teacher Mia Hicks with her students.

Above: Breathe For Change–certified yoga teacher Lael Simmons with kindergarten students.

Could yoga save our schools? By giving teachers the tools to cope with the sometimes overwhelming stress of educating children, especially in under-resourced communities, Breathe For Change thinks it can. The organization launched last year by teachers for teachers is on a mission to reduce teacher stress and burnout through wellness practices like yoga and mindfulness, and they're already seeing encouraging results in communities across the nation.

“Teacher burnout is a huge problem in our country today,” says Sam Levine, Director of Partnerships for Breathe For Change and a former teacher in the Washington, D.C. area. “Seventy-three percent of teachers report feeling extreme levels of physical, mental, and emotional stress, yet our current education system is not prioritizing their well-being. As a result, teachers are leaving the profession in droves, with some studies estimating that 50 percent leave in the first five years. Many who do stay in the profession become burned out, which research shows has a significant negative impact on student learning. If we want to sustainably improve our education system, we need to focus on the health and well-being of our teachers.”

Breathe For Change's founder, Dr. Ilana Nankin, was a pre-K teacher herself at a low-income Spanish dual-immersion elementary school in San Francisco when she found yoga to help her deal with the daily stresses she faced as a new teacher. She began to implement mind-body practices in her classroom, creating a peace corner in her room and leading group breathing exercises during transitions. Students became incredibly engaged and better able to focus their minds and regulate their emotions, she says. "My students would always ask, 'When is yoga time?’" Nankin recalls. “And as soon as we practiced our mindful movement, my students would calm down and focus in ways that seemed impossible before."

Inspired, Nankin went back to school at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education to pursue her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. While conducting research for her dissertation, she realized how prevalent the issue of teacher stress and burnout is -- and how much it negatively impacts teaching and learning. "I think my 4-year-old pre-k superstar, Patrick, put it best," Nankin says. "He once told me, 'In a community, first you have to love yourself. Because if you don’t love yourself, you can’t love anybody else.'" Through Breathe For Change, Nankin has now made it her life’s mission to ensure that teachers everywhere are supported in taking care of themselves, so that they can provide the best possible education for their students.

See alsoHow Yoga in Schools Helps Kids De-Stress

How to Get Certified

Breathe For Change offers a 200-hour Yoga Alliance certification designed specifically for educators, integrating practices such as yoga, mindfulness, meditation, communication techniques, and community-building exercises into a curriculum tailored specifically for use in the classroom and school community. Once teachers have been certified, Breathe For Change supports them in running wellness programs in their own schools. The first 34 educators graduated from the program last summer in Madison, Wisconsin, and went on to pilot school wellness programs at 10 schools in Madison and San Francisco. "Together with our graduates, we are already seeing enhancements in teacher and staff well-being, improvements in classroom learning environment, and increased collaboration among teachers, administration, and families," says Breathe For Change President Michael Fenchel.

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, Breathe For Change launched a crowdfunding campaign earlier this month to raise scholarship funds for teachers and schools that can't afford the Breathe for Change program. They raised $70,000 in their first week, and their goal is to raise $200,000 this month to support the 150 teachers and 25 schools that have applied for scholarships this year. "Teacher burnout is even more staggering in under-resourced schools, and we think it is critical to raise scholarship funds to ensure that those in greatest need of our programs are able to participate," says Levine. "I was dealing with this myself as a new teacher, and after a few years, I left the classroom. I didn’t have the support or the tools to help me overcome the stresses of teaching in such an intense environment. Now that I recognize that millions of other teachers are facing the same challenges as I did, I am totally committed to rewriting the story of teacher burnout by making wellness practices like yoga and mindfulness accessible and affordable to all teachers.”

This year, Breathe For Change will certify 250 teachers from across the United States and run school-wide wellness programs in 50 schools. "This is a collective effort," Nankin says. "If we continue to come together around this cause, we can truly change the world, one teacher at a time."

See alsoLive Be Yoga Visits Elementary School Yoga Program in Flint, Michigan

Breathe for Change has teacher trainings coming up at the University of Wisconsin in June, at UC-Berkeley in July, and at Sesame Workshop in New York in August. Get more information.