Martín Blank is a visionary educator, breathwork instructor, and educational consultant specializing in whole-school wellbeing and teacher and staff retention. He’s worked with over 15,000 students, and 14,000 educators over the last 10 years in hundreds of schools across districts nationally. He uses positive psychology, stress management, and resilience training to help leaders fight staff burnout and turnover and create systems that enable school and district thriving.
Novice teachers outperform the “best” veteran teachers with the “best” students using these breathing techniques.
The question to ask students to pull their power and peace of mind.
The connection between emotions and breathing bleeds into a student’s abilities and academics.
Tools to sit with frustration and be able to focus despite distraction to be a lot less reactive.
8 sessions of a “Resilience Journey for Leaders” to create retention positive school climates and wellbeing for everyone.
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Read the Transcript here.
Can You Really Breathe Your Way To Student Achievement?
How often are your novice principles more effective than your veteran principles? Usually this shouldn’t be the case. Veteran principles have all their wisdom and years of experience that they can apply to their craft and their art form to become an even more effective teacher year after year. But today’s guest, Martin Blank, as a novice teacher, outperformed the students who had the “best veteran teachers.” How’d he do it? Well, that’s a story we’re gonna tell at the beginning of our show. Hey, it’s Danny, chief Ruckus Maker over Better Leaders, better Schools. I’m a principal development and retention expert, a bestselling author, and I host two of the world’s most downloaded podcasts. And this show’s for you a Ruckus Maker, which means you’ve made three commitments to investing in your continuous growth, challenging the status quo in designing the future of school. We’ll be back with our main content after some messages from our show sponsors. Learn how to successfully navigate change, shape your school’s success, and lead your teams with Harvard Certificate in School Management and leadership. Get world-class Harvard Faculty Research, specifically adapted for pre-K through 12 schools. Self-Paced online professional development that fits your schedule. Get started at BetterLeadersbetterschools.com/harvard. How would you like to increase student talk by an average of 40% more student ownership? More student discourse? Check it out for yourself by trying out TeachFX. Go to teachfx.com/betterleaders to pilot their program today.
If executive functioning skills are integral to student success, then why aren’t they taught explicitly and consistently in classrooms? I have no idea. I have no idea why that doesn’t happen. But what I do know is that our friends over at Organized Binder have created a new course that will teach your teachers how to set up students for success via executive functioning skills. Learn [email protected]/go.
Well, hey there, Ruckus Makers. Today I’m joined by Martine Blank, visionary educator, breathwork instructor and educational consultant specializing in whole school wellbeing and teacher and staff retention. Is there a better topic to talk about these days? Honestly, probably not. Martin’s worked with over 15,000 students in 14,000 educators over the last 10 years in hundreds of schools across districts nationally. He uses positive psychology, stress management in resilience training to help leaders fight staff burnout and turnover, and create systems that enable school and district thriving. You could check out his [email protected]. Welcome to the show.
Danny. It’s so nice to be here. I’m a big fan and so excited to have the conversation with you.
Awesome. Let’s start Back in the day when you were a novice teacher and your students were outperforming the students who had the quote unquote best veteran teachers. And it wasn’t that you were better instructionally, it’s that you taught them how to breathe that led to their success. Tell us that story, because it sounds counterintuitive.
I was a fourth grade classroom, and as a novice teacher, as you may know, and many other people may know your seniority point, there’s a thing of called seniority points When you come into a district and you don’t get to choose what class you get, you sort of are given whichever class nobody else wants to teach. I was given a class of fourth grade students who were particularly difficult to work with historically. They had a string of long-term sub after long-term sub over the last two years. And it was sort of a cohort of kiddos who had been left sort of abandoned by the system in a sense. I came in and my vision for them was just, “Hey, let’s see if we can get you a little bit closer to grade level.”
We had reading levels between first and second grade on average. We had just a lot of basic skills for academically that weren’t there, and of course, socially emotionally weren’t there. I had just come from not the traditional teaching path, I was there on an emergency credential in California after teaching thousands of students with the International Association for Human Values. I taught thousands of students how to breathe and do stress management around the country in different schools. Which was a phenomenal experience and isolated, okay, let me see if I can do this in a classroom. And so these kiddos, I came in and I knew the one thing I knew how to do very well was establish a routine for breathing. Sounds really weird. I start teaching this to many different kids, many different classes, and the first thing they’ll say is, well, I already know how to breathe.
Like, if I didn’t know how to breathe, I’d be dead. What do you mean you’re gonna teach me to breathe? Then we start sharing and exploring that breathing consciously is a little bit different than breathing unconsciously. It’s kinda like knowing how to brush your teeth versus just throwing a whole bunch of water in your mouth and opening for the best. We established mental hygiene as importantly as kiddos viewed physical hygiene, dental hygiene. So we came in every day and we would practice these breathing practices. And what I saw at first is their ability to stay focused with the practice was very limited. After like eight to 10 seconds, somebody’s banana would end up on somebody else’s head. And then we’d be like, all right, that’s the end of today.
No, begin again. We’re done today. Let’s move on.
That’s what we can handle. I never made it an obligation. It was always a privilege and sort of couched around empowerment terms. The outcome of this was that I started seeing their ability to focus on the breathing sort of bleed into their ability to focus academically. And their ability to not take things so personally if there was a conflict.And so there, so specifically in terms of reading, I saw that their reading stamina improved their ability to sit with something frustrating yet necessary, which is a lot of school unfortunately increased. And so after a few months, my reading stamina is improving. They were able to sit with frustration. I’m happy to say that the average reading score at the end of that year was middle of third grade, so it wasn’t exactly fourth, but we had come a long way. We’d come almost two years on average, in improvement. And I wasn’t an expert reading teacher. All I was doing was giving them the tools to sit with frustration and be able to focus despite distraction.
So you mentioned it being like a privilege. Can you dig into that a little bit more? I understand what the word means, but I wanna be brought into the context of the classroom where it was a privilege to do this.
Setting up a breathing practice with them sort of, you can make it or break it depending on how your tone of voice or how you go about doing it, or if you’re making it a punitive thing where you’re forcing everybody to do it. My philosophy was, look, this is something not a lot of students are getting the opportunity to do during their school day, but it’s essential. And the question I would often ask them is, do you want to be your own boss, or do you want other people to be your boss for the rest of your life? And when you ask that to a fourth grader, I mean, every fourth grader, almost every fourth grader in my experience is going to say, yes, I wanna be my own boss. I wanna be powerful.
Then it’s just a matter of like, okay, well, what do we need to do in order to increase our power as individuals? And that’s where the challenge came in. Are you able to observe your breathing? Are you able to change your breath? If you’re able to change your breath and manipulate your breathing, then you’re able to control your body, you’re able to control your mind, you’re able to decide what you wanna focus on, how you wanna respond to situations. So that was a lot there. But I think coming back to your question, in terms of privilege, I think the kiddos felt that. It was always done in a supportive, encouraging way. I think they got a lot out of it.
I really like the framing of do you wanna be your own boss? And so not only is this important to fourth graders, I think if he asked adults this too. They would resonate with that message. So that’s really cool. And I heard that they’re able to focus more on how they related to the challenging stuff. They’d be able to navigate that more effectively and be a lot less reactive. They were their own boss. Can you explain though a little more about the connection between breath and emotions?
It’s such a cool question. The other day, I did a session for a group of educators and administrators and counselors in New York City. It was part of the innovation education conference. It was so much fun. And the whole thing was about heart rate variability and using that to help people manage their stress and biofeedback and all this stuff. But that’s sort of parallel. One of the activities I did with them was I put up on the white, on the projector screen, a list of I think 10 or 11 different emotions. Anger, frustration, embarrassment, joy, nervousness, fear, all kinds of, all kinds of things up there. And, then I had them partner up, and one partner would act out in emotions on that list, and the other partner would have to guess which one they’re acting out.
But it’s like charades. You can’t say anything. You can only act non-verbally. And so, okay, what they would do, and then I’d say whoever guessed the most, whoever partners had the most guesses wins. I haven’t decided what they won yet. But the point was you have this game where people are teaching each other what it looks like to have a certain emotion. And then I’d ask them, what did you use to teach? What tools, what gestures? What did you really use to help communicate what emotion you were feeling? I would ask this to the winners, and I would get things like, oh, well, my gestures, like my hands, my physical, my emotional sort of expressions. There’s all these different things that you can observe.
Of course, when we’re feeling emotions and there’s some things that you can’t observe, and what’s really cool, nobody said this. And I said, well, did anybody use their breathing in order to communicate an emotion? And people were like, people were like, oh, actually yes. People realize, oh, yes, I do use my breathing. For example, if you’re communicating fear, you might go, or if you’re communicating anger,, you’re really intense breathing. And, so this goes back and there’s research that was done in Belgium a few years ago that shows that people who are experiencing similar emotional experiences, experience similar emotions, have a certain pattern or a rhythm of breathing in general that correlates with that emotion. So anger is more forceful. Exhale, calmness is just a gentler breathing. Joy is associated sometimes with a more prominent inhale.
And what was really cool about the study was that they said, all right, well, let’s reverse this and see if we ask people to breathe in certain ways, can we also get them to feel certain things? Does it work in reverse? And it turns out that it does to a, to a significantly statistically significant degree. It really does. There’s sort of a medium, medium correlation, medium strength correlation there. So this is all to sort of tell us something that we all know intuitively. When we’re angry and somebody says take a deep breath and you wanna slap ’em across the face, but they’re right. If you do take a deep breath, you’re able to calm yourself. So there’s a connection. I call it like a physiological footprint for every emotion. Every emotion has a physiological footprint, whether that’s your breathing, whether it’s your digestive system, whether it’s your hormones, whether that’s your perspiration, whether that’s your emotional expression. Some observable, some unobservable. What’s really cool about breathing is that unlike digestion, or unlike heart rate, or unlike your hormones, you can decide in a split second to have control over it. You have some, it can be management open.
Beautiful. That’s really cool and for leaders too, I mean, obviously we’re talking about some of the impacts. You were doing a conference, so there were educators there, but we’re talking about students, but I’m in a high stake situation as a principal. Let’s say, the way a parent is approaching me about something they’re frustrated with. And I might be feeling fear or embarrassment or stress or whatever. And what I’m hearing you say is, if I’ve intentionally focused on the breath, I can change my relationship to that experience and change my emotional state as well, to be one that would be more positive and hopefully helpful in this situation. So that’s fascinating, fascinating, and just Maria Irene is saying that this is an interesting conversation and activity, so really great. Thank you, Maria, Irene, for the comment. So before the breakout, I want to ask you one more question. You founded School Wellbeing Solutions. And so can you tell us, Martin, what’s an exciting project that you’re working on over there at School Wellbeing Solutions these days?
I think it’s really cool that you mentioned this sort of situation with a leader who’s faced with an angry parent. And what they can do in that moment, and how their emotional experience manifests in their skill and action. School Wellbeing solutions we do a few different things related to staff wellbeing and retention, but the primary buckets are increasing the resilience of leadership and staff, and also help once the resilience is there, then helping them establish systems that don’t require more and more and more and more resilience in order to stay in the systems. So now you’ve got your resilience, you’ve got your healthy positive mindset. How can we use that to create systems that are upward spirals of wellbeing?
What an exciting project you asked about is I’m working with a school district, a couple school districts on what I call Resilience Journey for leaders. It’s an eight session, it’s an eight session journey. We start with, what is resilience and what are you going through? How are your pain points associated with your level of stress and how do they feed off of each other? And then go into a few positive psychology topics like thinking traps, character strengths, mindfulness, breathing patterns, heart rate variability and biofeedback. And then once we’ve really established sort of routines that help us be our best selves, then how do you create, how do you take that knowledge and infuse it into your work and create systems that are nutritious for the wellbeing of your staff? And so in thereby improving retention, positive school climates and wellbeing for everyone at the school.
Awesome. I’m enjoying our conversation, Martine, and when we get back after some messages from our sponsors, I’d also like to ask you about your weekly Thriving Educator series, too.
Yeah. Happy to talk about it.
The Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast is proudly sponsored by Harvard’s Certificate in School Management and Leadership. I know many Mastermind members and many Ruckus Makers who listen to this show that have gone through the program and have loved the experience. But don’t just take it from me. Let’s hear how some of the Harvard faculty describe the impact and their heart for this program. “I deeply believe that every single person on this planet has superpowers, and it is our job as educators to tap into them and unleash them.”
Learn more about the program and apply at Better Leaders Better schools.com/harvard. What do you see in your classrooms, and how did you see it? As a principal, you can’t be everywhere at once, so how can you help support every teacher in the building? With Teach FX, teachers can gather their own feedback without relying on classroom observations. The Teach FX Instructional Coaching app is like giving every teacher their own instructional coach whenever they want it. Ruckus Makers can pilot Teach FX with their teachers, visit teachfx.com/betterleaders.To learn how. That’s Teachfx.com/betterleaders. If your students are struggling to stay focused and your teachers are showing signs of burnout, you need to act now. The good news is that there’s a path forward. It is possible to lay the foundation for learning and to re-energize your teachers. And that’s found in executive functioning skills. When students get practiced with these skills, they can better self-regulate, and they are more successful academically.
Our friends at Organized Binder have released a new self-paced course that will teach you how to teach these executive functioning skills and set your students up for success. The goal of this course is to help your students be more successful and get teachers back to the work they’re called to do. Learn [email protected]/go. Help your students be more successful and get your teachers back to the work they’re called [email protected]/go. And we’re back with Martine Blake, who is the founder of School Wellbeing Solutions. We’re talking about an exciting project he’s working on before the break, and there’s, and that has to do with resilience. I know and correct me if I’m wrong too, please, but you had a program called The Weekly Thriving Educator Series, and so if that’s still going on, what’s that all about?
Weekly Thriving Educator Series is an opportunity for a variety of individuals that work in K 12. So not just teachers, but staff support, staff administrators who wanna join to be immersed in a sort of regular, ongoing conversation about different evidence-based strategies and tools and resources for resilience and wellbeing. Yeah, it’s sort of an answer to a problem that you’ll often hear in the world of professional development, which is then what? So we come in, we do a great, a great day. Everybody has fun. Everybody feels at the top of their game, and then they’re like, all right, well, this is great, and things sustain for a week, maybe two weeks, and then stress gets the best of us. We go back. So it really, this is a group that’s helping people feel accountable and just keeping this top of mind over and over again, especially the group of people who wanna incorporate positive psychology. We’re gonna launch officially, we’re doing a small pilot now with a small group of folks, but we’re gonna launch officially in September, and we’re spending the summer really cooking up a very, very strong flow. And different educators and, and positive psychology practitioners are gonna be the leaders of that. So if you’re interested, I’m happy to share more and be in touch about it with anybody.
Where should we direct them? Should they just go to school wellbeing solutions.com to learn more about that? Or is there something better?
That’s perfect. Website has information and our contact info there as well.
Okay, cool. I think you believe that in education, we forget that we have anything of value below the neck. What’s going on there?
There’s what I call the above the neck bias. So we sometimes forget, especially the pandemics are reinforced this because everybody’s sort of became boxes on a screen and people loved it ’cause you don’t have to wear pants or you could wear your pajamas or whatever. But really, there’s, and school sort of is designed to reward people who can who who can think quickly, analyze, quickly, agree, and support their arguments, disagree and support their arguments, but there’s so much more that actually is conducive to happiness. Let me back up for a moment. There are certain skills in every job that are great for doing that job, but they’re terrible for your own level of wellbeing and happiness and satisfaction.
For example, a lawyer is great at arguing. If he takes that same skill and brings it into his relationship, it’s not gonna be good luck. It’s not gonna fare. It’s also an unfortunate statistic that there’s a high level of attorneys that are suicidal and depressed and alcoholics. And so you have to sort of ask the question why. a lot of times it’s because we train so hard, we put so much attention and focus on developing the skills that will take us far in our careers, but those skills are antithetical to what will take us far in our lives. And in terms of what this, how this applies to schools. When you ask a group of administrators or a group of teachers, what is the purpose of education?
Why are we here? What are we doing? Typically, you get answers along the lines of, well, I want my students to be happy. I want them to be contributing positive members of society. I want them to be self-sufficient, independent, successful, whatever that means for different folks. So if we want those things, then we have to take a really hard look at what we’re doing day to day, and if what we’re rewarding is gonna get our students there. And typically what we reward in schools are skills that yes, they’re important, they’re intellectual skills like analyzing, and the ones I mentioned earlier, agreeing, disagreeing, but those skills are not always helpful for our wellbeing. What is helpful is learning what I call how to develop your noticing muscle. #noticingmuscle. Your ability to we were talking about mindfulness earlier, which is awesome.
The noticing muscle is this ability to be with an experience without the need to react, without the need to agree or disagree, or that ability to just notice before responding is something that. You might agree we’re sort of losing a little bit as a culture. and it’s manifesting in social media, feuds and siloing, and people misunderstanding each other and jumping to conclusions and not even knowing that you’ve jumped to a conclusion. Or not even knowing that you agree or disagree with something because it’s so automatic. So those are the skills that lead us towards division, lead us towards conflict, lack of support, loneliness, and ultimately mental health concerns or mental illness. Whereas what doesn’t lead us there, which is ideally the purpose of education is noticing, is this ability. So that was a lot, but, and I thought that was. I think that’s interesting to me. I think about that often.
I think the political climate and the challenges and stress that Ruckus Makers face on the day-to-day, this almost unconscious reactivity. That they’re experiencing this noticing I know will resonate with them. So for sure, you should check out what Martine’s doing@ schoolwellbeingsolutions.com. So let me ask you about paradoxes. I think this will be my last question before we do the three as all my guests, but you’re perfectly situated to weigh in on this. We have school leaders and educators who are exhausted. And they need to take care of themselves, and they know this but then you might offer them some kind of self-care training. They’ll roll their eyes or emotions in breathing. What’s going on there? If they know they need it, we all know they need it, then it’s offered and people are like, oh, this is stupid. And how might we like to switch that reaction.
There’s a couple of topics that might relate to that. One is this idea of drowning. Because that’s what’s happening. People are drowning. They’re drowning in demands, and they don’t have a life jacket. They don’t have resources. Whether those resources are time, whether those resources are money staff. Resources are limited, demands are high. That’s a recipe for stress. And so if somebody’s drowning, is that the moment to teach ’em how to swim? Is that the moment you say, Hey, let me teach you Backstrokes, you’ll be fine. Just, no, man, they’re drowning. They’re in fight or flight. They’re like, if you don’t like physically taking them out of the water, then they might die. Trying to just do self-care in an environment of toxicity, an environment of high levels of stress, high levels of demands, low levels of resources is akin to that.
And it’s a little bit what the word might be, tone deaf. So you walk into a room and you’re like, Hey, everybody, listen, have you ever tried yoga? You probably would feel better. Or have you maybe just start drinking a little bit more water. People are like, what this guy, like, he’s not tethered to our, he doesn’t understand. And so I guess this is more of a message to folks that are leading PDs and folks that are change makers, really meet people where they are and see, okay, what do I need to do right now? I’m not thriving yet, maybe I’m just surviving. Let’s get to surviving and then we’ll move to thriving. And so that’s the paradox here.
The other thing I would just share is that when we’re in fight or flight, we tend to place higher value on things like firefighting on things, like quick solutions or just taking care of what’s most painful, because we need to deal with that. And we get into this addictive rutt of continually just firefighting no matter what. Even if we don’t, even if the thing can wait a couple days, it’s firefighting. Because we’re in that mindset, we’re in that mental space, and that’s how we’re operating. I’ve seen this with tons of leaders over and over again. So the art or the skill, if you’re a coach or if you’re trainers, being able to help leaders move just gently out of that for a moment and just say, Hey, just want you to know that when you’re ready to, to operate strategically rather than reactively. I’ll be here and we can do the work. And I completely understand if there’s things that need to be attended to, and there are emergencies, staffing shortages or whatever needs to happen. At the same time, if you wanna reduce your long-term pain points so that next year you’re not in the same turnover or staff recruitment headache. Then we do need to put a little bit of attention on those sustainable strategic moves that will get us to where we wanna be next year.
Brilliant. Cool. Martin, if you could put a message on all school marquees around the world for a single day, what would your message be?
I thought about this. There’s so much. I’d probably give you a list of like 28 different messages to put one for different days of the month. I might put something like cultivate peace. I think that’s kind of what I stand for is in inner peace. And what follows from that is your ability to cultivate peace externally.
And if you were building your dream school, there were no constraints in terms of resources. The only limitation was your ability to imagine how Martin would build his dream school? What would be the three guiding principles?
Another really good question. Which means that it’s hard to answer. So those tastes typically go hand in hand. One is, I guess the priority for me would be in yoga. There’s this concept, I might be totally butchering this yoga. No, I’m butchering it. Don’t quote me on that, but I have a couple of the words, and it’s patanjali’s, sort of who the father of modern yoga is, is this idea of balancing effort with gentleness or with joy, with enjoyability. When you’re doing it. When you’re in a pose in yoga, whatever you’re doing, yes, there should be a level of effort, but it shouldn’t be painful. Remembering how that applies to schools is when you’re learning it should not be a painful process.
It should be enjoyable. And that’s going to rekindle the spark that leads to lifelong learning. And that leads to wanting to learn more and building intrinsic motivation, which is what we all want. We want kiddos to have intrinsic motivation so that we can stop bribing them and, and get to facilitate and get to expand and get to remove the obstacles for them. And, and that’s not where we are now, but that would be a guiding principle. Another one, which would be respect for the developing mind. Very aligned there, very similar. And then the third one would be to question everything, but do it with kindness.
Love it. We covered a lot of ground today. Talked about a lot of really important topics of everything we, Martin, what’s the one thing you wanna Ruckus Maker to remember?
I want people to remember that they matter. I want you to remember that you matter. Often we forget that. And when we forget that we matter, we’re not able to do our best, to be the best versions of ourselves to do good work. And matter has two components. Mattering is contributing and feeling valued for your contribution. And so if that’s not happening, I would encourage you to troubleshoot that. Get in touch with me. I’m happy to support you. I’m sure Danny’s happy to support them as well. There’s so much to be said, but that’s what I’ll end with is just saying You matter. Chris Peterson, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, says other people matter. And that subset of other people includes you. And so I’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for these awesome questions, Danny.
Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders, better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @alienearbud, and using the hashtag#blbs. Level Up your leadership at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”
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Why do students struggle? I’d argue that they lack access to quality instruction, but think about it. That’s totally out of their control. What if there was something we could teach kids there was something within their control that would help them be successful in every class? It’s not a magic pill or a figment of your imagination.
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