Entry Title

A High School Principal’s Solution for Connecting the Disconnected

By Mike Croy

The bell rings, doors open, and you can hear the squeaking of tennis shoes and the crackling of adolescent voices as they make their way down the hall. They file into the “studio” and know to take off their shoes, place their electronic devices on the window ledge and grab a mat. The school psychologist wanders in, spraying the still, soon-to-be musky air with lavender spray meant to pleasantly stimulate the air and then slides out unnoticed. Our studio, in reality is a media center with carpeted floors, computer stations along one-half of the room, and folded up tables that have been compressed to the back of the room.

Based on the number of students that have signed up, I direct them to create rows, usually three or four students per row.  While the class averages 10 students per week, there is space for up to 20. Students are chatty upon entering and snap the thin, sticky purple mats down to the ground before flopping down. Most of the students have socks on, and one asks quietly if they can sneak out and apply some deodorant to their feet so they can practice. Forget the overpriced tights with patterns and earthly made tops, most are in jeans and hoodies. This isn’t your normal yoga studio class, these are my students, and I love offering them this class.

I am a principal at a center-based, county-wide, high school with emotionally impaired students. While the case could be made that nearly any high school student could be seen as having an emotional impairment, all my students have been officially diagnosed through a lengthy process to be eligible to attend my school.  Student impairments include one or more of the following categories: interpersonal relations, behavior/feelings, unhappiness/depression and physical symptoms/fears. Most come from abusive, trauma-filled backgrounds, and often have significant mental illness issues, juvenile court involvement or a combination. On top of that, due to their inability to control their behavior, most have missed significant classroom time and struggle with academics. They come to school loaded with anxiety, depression, anger, rage, fear, and are looking, hoping, and searching for a way to manage their emotions. They’d rather not hurt others with their words or fists, destroy property, or threaten suicide, but they need tools to manage themselves.

What answer do you have for a student who wakes up to find their parent covered in vomit because they tried to take their own life? How would you advise a student who overhears from a grandparent that they were appointed by the state because the parents wished he/she didn’t exist?  What would you say? My answer is yoga.

Why yoga? My answer is why not? Yoga has been proven to improve body awareness as well as boost self-esteem and self-confidence. Furthermore, yoga encourages mind and body connections, something that my students so desperately need. So, I took a chance.

As an on again/off again yoga practitioner over the past several years, I had thrown out the idea several times about teaching my students some yoga. I believed if they could move their bodies and learn to breathe, that maybe they could find a healthy replacement for such destructive behaviors. I had come to the mat myself at first to counterbalance all of the running that I do, but like most people, found that once I started practicing, that often what I was running from was myself. I fell down the rabbit hole of self-discovery and felt compelled to share with my students.

The idea to teach my students yoga came into focus more when I did a simple google search for “teens, yoga, benefits” and ran across a website called YogaMinded. People come into your life for a reason, and Christy just releasing her new online teen teaching course. Her sole purpose was to motivate someone like me to teach teens yoga!   Without hesitation, I knew I wanted to take this course and was grateful to find more information about how to teach teenagers yoga. Throughout the course, Christy’s teaching solidified my choice to offer yoga to my students and further spurred me to enroll in a 200 hour yoga teacher training program, as well.

Sketching it out in my head, I wondered how to give students the opportunity to discover this practice. I had to make it voluntary. Make it their idea. I couldn’t hold it class every day, but it had to be somewhat predictable. I ordered some mats and, in the end, chose to offer a class the last hour of the day each Friday. Students could sign up in the office anytime before Friday.

Prior to the start of the school year, as I was going through new school initiatives with staff, I pitched the idea. I asked for their assistance in selling the idea to students and I too pounded the pavement drumming up students. Some didn’t know what yoga was, some didn’t think they would get much of a ‘workout’, and some to be fair, were just looking to get out of one class a week. Soon enough, it was time for our first class.

We moved, slowly. Just getting teenagers to silently sit in a room, noticing their breath even for just a few minutes is pretty significant. From there, I moved students through a safe series of postures that I felt was just enough to break a sweat and push them towards their edge, but not turn them off so they wouldn’t come back. The sweaty, musky ambiance cutting through the lavender laced air let me know that they had engaged with the practice. When I taught the same class to my fellow yoga teacher trainers, they challenged me to push my students a little further. “They may be capable of more than you think.”

The next class, I told my students that they were going to fly and led them into Virabhdrasana 3. Their faces contorted as if trying to use their facial muscles to balance on their leg. Most wobbled side to side and fell. But not one got upset. In fact, they giggled and tried again. I encouraged this failure. “Fail again” I told them, “but simply give yourself the permission tobegin again.”

Is it having an impact? A lot of people want to say you need to have data to show that something is being successful. So here is the data. To date this school year, over 27% of the student population has taken one of the drop in classes I offer on a weekly basis. The class averages 10 students per week, but I have had as few as 4 students and as many as 16 students at one time. Each Monday, students drop in the office and sign up or catch me in the hallway and ask me to jot their name down. I don’t have to sell it.

Here is the real “data”, though: students have reported to me that they look forward to the class each week. They learn new things about themselves and how they can do more than they think they can. Other students have commented that it is relaxing and helps them deal with the drama. In one instance, I had two young men in my office who were sent there because they were going to get into a fight in the lunchroom. I told them that I was supposed to have them in yoga class in less than an hour. One of the young men said, “ I have a lot of sh@! going on right now and need yoga, that’s why I signed up”. The other young man agreed and less than an hour later they were both going through Sun Salutations.

 Staff have noted that they have witnessed students try to apply some of the breathing when faced with other school situations. Some feel that it is empowering students to take charge of their time and engage in an activity that they might not ever have access to outside of school.

In the end, that is all the validation I need. I chose to step outside of my comfort zone as a principal, to not always play it safe, and to share with my students something that I have found to be of great value to me.  As I wove a subtle message into class about taking the practice off the mat and into their daily lives, one of my students said, “ I see what you are trying to do there Mr.Croy”.  That is the real work and benefit of yoga. One breath, one mindful movement can help so much. When lost, simply begin again.