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Teaching Teachers to Care for Themselves—So They Can Better Care for Others

November 8, 2017
A teacher practicing mindful meditation

We’ve all heard the proverbial instructions flight attendants share before takeoff: In case of emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first, before attempting to help others. This advice is true, literally and metaphorically. How can we expect to help others when we ourselves are running on empty? Yet the struggle to prioritize our own well-being is real. Often it takes support from folks who know the struggle and many reminders that building our own resilience is a powerful way to be the best teachers we can be.   

Ilana Nankin (Bay Area ‘09) is dedicated to seeing that this happens. While a pre-K teacher in a Spanish dual-immersion elementary school, she saw firsthand how yoga and mindfulness practices helped herself and her students. Inspired, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education. In a dissertation entitled "Breathe For Change: Changing the World, One Teacher at a Time," Ilana explored the critical connection between teacher well-being and effective teaching.

Based on her research and teaching experiences, Ilana founded Breathe For Change (also referred to as B4C) in 2015 to transform education by empowering teachers to be champions of well-being in their own lives and in their classrooms and school communities. That June, the organization brought together 34 educators from around the world for the first-ever 200-hour wellness and yoga teacher training specifically designed for educators. Since then Ilana and her team have continued to refine their model through in-depth research and collaboration with educators, school and district leaders, researchers, and other partners to ensure that these powerful wellness practices are accessible and culturally relevant to all teachers, students, and families within the context of today’s education system.

More than 850 educators have graduated from this training to date. We met up with Ilana to learn more.

What are some of the lessons that you took away from your time as a Teach for America corps member that have stayed with you and inspired your current work?

I learned to persevere in the face of hardship, and that I could embrace breakdowns as opportunities for breakthroughs—something that has become a core part of B4C’s curriculum. I also learned the power of collaboration, and that anything is possible when you bring talented people together and inspire them for a cause far greater than themselves. I also learned to take lofty ideas and put them into action; how to backwards plan from a vision and figure out how to make it happen, now.

The layers of mentorship in TFA inspired me to create similar structures in B4C. And, last but not least, the commitment to diversity and equity at TFA really drove home the importance of putting these values front and center in an organization. I am incredibly grateful for everything I learned from my time in the corps; I would not be where I am without my journey with TFA.

What is most exciting about what you are seeing with teachers who participate in the Breathe For Change trainings?

We are seeing teachers become fully alive again and reclaim the passion, vision, and love that inspired them to become educators in the first place. We are witnessing teachers realizing that they are truly more effective teachers when they take care of themselves first—and actually prioritizing their own well-being. Finally, we are seeing absolute transformations in teachers’ classrooms and schools, from students resolving conflicts with one another through breathing techniques to families and community members coming together to collaborate at wellness classes. There is an incredible transformation that takes place when educators are given the tools to creatively integrate mind-body practices into their lives, classrooms, and school communities.

For many, budgeting the time and money for this type of training is difficult. What would you share with teachers who are worried about the cost or time needed to complete the training?

We know firsthand the time and financial challenges that teachers face, which is why we offer need-based scholarships, credits to boost salaries, and an extremely thoughtful training format. Our trainings truly do require an investment, but our hundreds of graduates will tell you that it’s one of the best investments you could ever make—because it’s an investment in yourself.

For teachers who are unable to join a Breathe For Change training in the near future, what advice would you share about ways to prioritize their well-being and how to increase their resourcefulness and resiliency in the profession?

First of all, it is essential to understand that our well-being is truly critical to our teaching, and to give ourselves permission to put ourselves first for once. Research shows that no matter how hard we work or how good our intentions are, ultimately our own presence and well-being is what students pick up on and learn from socially and emotionally. That means that in order to be the best teachers we can be, we absolutely have to prioritize our well-being—so there is truly no excuse!

Once the motivation is there, the best thing to do is to ask yourself what you truly need, and to take small steps to bring it into your life. Mind-body practices such as yoga or mindfulness techniques work really well for me (and many others), but there are infinitely many ways to cultivate well-being and everyone is unique. The real key is to be loving and gentle with yourself, and to start to give yourself the time and space to do things that make you feel great, alive, and more and more like YOU.

Breathe For Change has trainings scheduled in nine cities in 2018. Learn more or suggest your city for an upcoming training.