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Breathing for Schools

A Whistle Stop Tour of My Teaching Career

As with most endeavours in my life, I didn’t get into teaching through the most obvious route. My first classroom experience, not as a pupil, began at the school pictured here, the Humboldt Oberschule (now the Humboldt Gymnasium) in West Berlin. I’d taken the opportunity to find a post as a foreign language assistant, not because I planned to become a teacher, but because I wanted to return to Germany, having spent a wonderful year there before my final year at university. The experience was altogether positive, and I had a brief insight of what it was like to take sole responsibility for a class when one of the teachers asked me to cover a couple of his Volkshochschule (evening school) classes. I subsequently drifted into more of the same, or similar at least, teaching English to non-native speaker children in England, and back to Germany to teach English to adults and then basic German to American forces based in Germany, followed by a final stint in Munich teaching English in a language school.

By this stage, I was genuinely well-equipped, at least in terms of experience, to apply for work back in the UK. I was fortunate to be taken on at a Sixth Form College teaching modern languages to post 16s. The college also sub-contracted me for half of my timetable to an 11 to 16 school for 3 years and later to a couple more of the local secondary schools.

I think it’s common for experienced teachers to increasingly shift their attention away from themselves and their own performance to the students, to their challenges and concerns, to genuinely want the best for them irrespective of any tick box exercise to be later assessed by inspectors. It’s with this in mind that I have a sense of regret at not having had a competent toolbox of non-academic resources to support these young people and children through, not just school and college, but also life! The simplest and potentially most effective of these tools being breathing, something most of us take for granted despite doing it day by day, moment by moment.

Why ‘Breathing’ in Schools is so Important

Now, over three decades since my Humboldt Schule experience, I’m back in Berlin with my husband, Graham. We’ve both become breathing re-education instructors. I saw it as an absolute must. I’d discovered that I was breathing dysfunctionally and needed to put it right without knowing for sure what the consequences of correct breathing might be. The results have surprised me, positively, and I’ve written about them elsewhere so for now I’ll just say that they include better sleep, recovery from post Covid breathlessness and the disappearance of a persistent low-level hum of anxiety.

It wasn’t long after ‘working on myself’ that I realised just how significant this knowledge could have been to some of my former students who, despite their very best intentions in many cases, couldn’t concentrate (which I found irritating, I’m sorry to say), and experienced anxiety, some of it at the panic end of the spectrum when it came to exams, or even thinking about them. Breathing isn’t the answer to all of these issues, but if breathing is suboptimal, and for many of us nowadays it is, then they will at least be made worse. Poor breathing can even be the direct cause; as fast overbreathing becomes the norm, the body is giving a constant message to the brain that there’s a threat to be on the alert for. This is ultimately chronic stress, caused or exacerbated by hyperventilation which is nothing more than breathing in excess of one’s metabolic needs, it needn’t be the visibly obvious type of fast breathing that precedes a panic attack.

Some children have had a really rough deal in recent decades. Their teachers, parents and even their doctors know nothing about breathing. The information is there, but rectifying disordered breathing doesn’t generate revenue as it can only be resolved by retraining it, rather than through medication, so it fails to get the attention it merits. Modern humans live differently from even our relatively recent ancestors with the result that breathing is more prone to being compromised. Mouth breathing in particular has become widespread through no fault of the individual, but the effects on a developing young child can be hugely detrimental, changing the shape of the face¹, narrowing the airway, causing sleep disordered breathing, including snoring and sleep apnea … how many children are persistently tired? And even cognitive impairment if mouth breathing and snoring aren’t addressed by around age eight². Retraining breathing for these children could represent a priceless lifelong gift. And for those whose breathing is not typically problematic, there are exercises that can work as interventions in times of stress, easy strategies to put to immediate use in, for example, exams and to take into adult life.

Of course, it isn’t only the pupils and students who may need help. Breathing re-education may well have served this former teacher very well. I loved the classroom interactions but many other aspects of the job, the paperwork, the inspections, the meetings, the deadlines and so on were often stressful to me, not helped by my tendency to feel anxious and my inability to sleep well. I suspect my disordered breathing patterns were already a fact of my life some years ago, I just didn’t know it. We know that teaching can be tiring but I for one didn’t know that any job involving a lot of talking is inevitably tiring by virtue of the fact that it necessitates over-breathing (it really is nigh on impossible to breathe softly and slowly whilst talking). It is therefore imperative to learn how to down-regulate to counteract the effects of the enforced over-breathing. Excessive breathing can easily become a habit and if it does, it will likely feed into any stress, anxiety, exhaustion³ and or disrupted sleep and worsen symptoms of not just respiratory illnesses such as asthma, but also any conditions that are linked to stress and poor sleep.

These are just some of the reasons Graham and I would like to ensure that breathing re-education and breathwork are made available to schools, from teachers to pupils. It can also move beyond remedial use by benefiting physical and mental performance from focus and concentration through to sports⁴. We are ready and willing to present the information for no charge to the staff of any schools where there may be interest. Such a presentation would be online or in person where this can be arranged.

We are happy to answer any of your questions.

~ Annette Henry

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