I will forever know 2021 as one of my toughest, yet most accomplished years as an Educator. Despite the challenges the year posed, I learned many lessons and made new discoveries to facilitate continuous creativity and self-mastery.
As a recipient of the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Remote Learning Emergency Fund for Educators, I created a virtual program called “Just Breathe: Our Human Connection to the Ocean.” The program aimed to help meet the growing demand in marginalized communities around the world for ocean and global climate change education. My students were from small developing islands across the Caribbean, the African continent, Sweden, and the United States. There is a critical need for all children to understand the basics of climate change and to be able to recognize how the impacts show up in their daily lives and environment. Given the enormity of this continuous global crisis, having access to this knowledge is a human right and a necessity to foster early sustainable habits and to cultivate frontline champions of change. It was an honor and privilege to meet and to serve them.
“I Can’t Breathe”
Within a few short weeks of starting Just Breathe, the landscape began to shift and breathing took on a strikingly different dimension than I had been prepared to address. In early February, it became clear that COVID-19 would be more devastating and long-lasting than some authorities had predicted. Soon, the increased number of infections and loss of life had pushed the COVID crisis into a full-blown pandemic. Simultaneously, the reverberation of divisive politics, civil and racial unrest, and relentless and record-breaking hurricanes along the Atlantic coast made the times feel rather apocalyptic!
As families around the world faced daunting challenges and schools faced unprecedented uncertainty, I witnessed the agonizing frustration and loss of control and resolve from my teacher partners. Most heartbreaking of all, the young participants in the program, whom I had gotten to know and admire for their youthful exuberance, were becoming unaccountable. Those who remained were becoming quite visibly detached and despondent, and they were losing focus and attention. Some of the children were isolated behind closed doors, battling the interruptions from other activities in their homes. Many of the children never turned their cameras on, speaking incoherently through deep sighs and moans.
It was clear that I had come together with children suffering from varying degrees of trauma. To eliminate the burden of sitting through a “nonessential” course, my partner teachers and I decided to end the program.
The pandemic didn’t leave me unscathed either. Experiencing personal loss, emotional stress, and a developing eating disorder, I went home to Jamaica to meander through the Blue Mountain rainforest and swim my sorrows away in the wild blue of the Caribbean Sea.
“Breathe Like a Warrior”
One day, after I returned to shore from an early-morning swim, an elder fisherman greeted me with a warm smile. Recognizing him, I returned his pleasantries and listened respectfully as he spoke. Locals say that, even at the age of 85, his fishing techniques are unmatched. He had been watching me swim and suggested that I was “fighting against the water.” He said a few simple corrective measures to my breathing would help me develop a better cadence and a more intimate relationship with the ocean. A bit skeptical but intrigued, I agreed to be his student. For two hours a day, four days a week, for a month, I met faithfully with the fisherman in preparation to free-dive alongside him. He helped me learn full-body flexibility, relaxation, and mindful breathing exercises to control the impulse to breathe erratically.
I had been given a gift of healing. The fisherman’s daily routine helped to release the layers of tension I had been carrying with me since the start of the pandemic. With each day, I felt a profound sense of energy and acute awareness. I felt extraordinarily alive and fearless! The fisherman taught me about moon cycles, the physics of rip tides and currents, and safe navigation while exploring the ocean. Most importantly, he helped me awaken to a new way of seeing and experiencing life. He stressed the importance of being able to be still, silent, and a keen observer of animals and natural elements. I’ll never forget the deep whisper of his last words to me: “Trust your intuition. Like water, be ever so fluid, and breathe like a warrior.”
Breathe Blue Meditation: Helping My Students Explore Their Inner Selves
Inspired by my experience with the fisherman, upon returning from Jamaica I immersed myself in research on the evolutionary science of breathing and the ancient practice of mindfulness and yoga for well-being and transformation. With my students in mind, I created a 15-minute deep-breathing and gentle-movement activity called Breathe Blue Meditation, curated with landscape and underwater digital content captured during my Caribbean travels. I was curious to see what impact mindfulness would have on the small group of students with whom I worked over the summer.
Breathe Blue Meditation integrated into my Human Connection to the Ocean lessons was the perfect duo. Students were transfixed by the awe and tranquility of the ocean scenes, as if they were in touch with something greater than themselves. Over our time together, they have become less self-absorbed and more engaged. They asked endless questions related to what it feels like to be submerged in the ocean and how I handle fear. Their inquisitive questions during our moments of shared storytelling let me know that they had done some courageous inner exploring of their feelings and emotions and their relationship to the natural environment around them.
One student wrote in her journal, “Since I’ve been doing mindfulness, I feel free and happy because everything around me is so beautiful! If I do get sad or scared, I go to a quiet space and open the window of my heart to let some fresh air and sunshine in. I’m then in paradise!” Two of my students began swim lessons with the hopes of learning to scuba dive and restore coral this summer, while others say they have experienced greater creativity, focus, and concern for the planet. To this end, I am motivated by the role that mindfulness can play in the classroom as an activity to help awaken curiosity, heighten sensory experiences, and embrace new possibilities.
Although my COVID-19 Remote Learning Emergency Fund project did not launch as I had intended, it was still a success! Through all the challenges, I found a way to prioritize the needs of my students, accepting them, their circumstances, and the emotional state in which they showed up each day. Foremost, I met a humble man who graciously gave the gift of his time to help me navigate through the rough sea of life. I’m thankful to be able to share this gift with my students so that they too can experience the power of mindfulness to support their personal growth and development in and outside of the classroom.
A Compassionate Act for Hope
“Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention to present-moment experience, inside ourselves, our minds and bodies, with an attitude of openness, curiosity, kindness, and care.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
The groundbreaking work of Jon Kabat-Zinn helped bring mindfulness to a wider audience. To help shape the movement, he created a practice that would be appealing to the Western sensibility by placing less emphasis on the more overt ancient Buddhist elements of meditation while preserving many of its core principles. In general, a consistent practice of mindfulness can change the body’s and the brain’s physiological responses to stressors. In return, one cultivates an improved management of life.
In early 2021, the lens turned significantly toward trauma-informed mindfulness practices as a way for teachers to manage the uncertainties of the pandemic and the instability in their schools and classrooms. The rise in cases of the new Omicron variant is already showing that 2022 may have marked similarities to years past. Worse, if predictions are accurate, the COVID-19 crisis will pale in comparison to the intensity and frequency of extreme weather and other health-related threats caused by climate change.
As Educators, how do we better equip ourselves to meet the continuous demands of this moment? The discipline of geography teaches us that Earth’s physical variations are highly dynamic and ever-changing in nature. The evolutionary development of life on Earth has always required living species to adapt. Thus, adaptation is an act of self-preservation. If we can embrace the reality that what it means to be an Educator has evolved and substantially more is required of us in our classrooms of awaiting children, from this point we can compassionately commit to learning creative ways to facilitate an equitable learning environment for human flourishing.
I believe we all can cultivate the strength and the capacity to create the learning environments our students deserve. It starts with the ability to find our inner Warrior. Here I share a few resources to help you create daily mantras and rituals to help anchor you against the gravitational pull of the tides. In the words of Dr. Vicki Phillips, “May 2022 bring renewed hope.”
Sandra Turner is a National Geographic Certified Educator and Explorer who teaches Global Climate Change and Ocean Education. She integrates STEAM focused-projects, physical geography, scientific modeling, ArcGIS mapping applications, and digital storytelling to cultivate curiosity about the natural world in new generations of Explorers.
Sandra will attend Stanford University School of Medicine’s Applied Compassion Training as a 2022 full-tuition scholarship recipient. The training is an 11-month intensive Compassion Ambassador program led by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Her capstone research will focus on the role that restorative yoga, mindfulness, and compassion may play in facilitating greater human connection to our natural environment and healing from childhood trauma due to toxic stress and climate-related disasters.
She is a Certified MBSR Mindfulness Practitioner and Breath Instructor. Sandra is currently enrolled in YOGA.Ed’s Trauma-Informed Yoga and Mindful Practices for Youth program and is a 2022 candidate for Yale University’s Climate and Health Graduate Certificate.
This post references a project made possible in part by an award from the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Remote Learning Emergency Fund for Educators.
Unless otherwise noted, photos are courtesy of Sandra Turner.