Sometimes a spark of inspiration from the right person is all you need to take the first step toward a goal. And if you’re lucky, that person might be Jen Burdis.
The 43-year-old Rancho Santa Fe, California, fourth-grade teacher and former competitor on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior has been active her entire life. Whether she was slugging it out in Little League as a young girl, charging through high school as a three-sport student or playing volleyball at Penn State, Burdis is a natural athlete.
And these days, she’s channeling her knack for action into a mission for success, helping friends, fellow teachers, students and families of all fitness levels cultivate healthy habits and happier lives.
That means leading before-school or lunchtime workouts for her co-workers at R. Roger Rowe School, getting her students out of their seats and moving throughout the day, offering free bootcamps at a local workout apparel store and facilitating fitness challenges via social media (find her @Jennifer_Burdis on Twitter) for people across the country. It’s all part of what she calls the “EduNinja mindset” she’s aiming to instill in others—habits that lead to stronger minds and bodies.
“Ninja Warrior felt like the perfect platform for me to get people excited about being healthier,” says Burdis, who grew up in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, a tiny Appalachian coal-mining town where her coaches and teachers nurtured her athletic talent and encouraged her to excel despite a struggle with dyslexia.
“When I think of the most influential mentors in my life, they’ve always been educators or coaches,” she says. “So when it came time to pick a major in college, teaching just made sense. I wanted to help people of all abilities do their very best.”
She’s got (ninja) moves
At the urging of several friends, Burdis submitted a tryout video in 2014 for the hit TV show, famous for sending its competitors tearing through nearly gravity-defying hurdles designed to test their speed, strength and metal focus. Obstacles with names like Jumping Spider and Spinning Bridge were the perfect match for Burdis’s volleyball-honed agility.
After being selected for the show, she was determined to be well-prepared for what she calls the “biggest obstacle course in the world.” So she cranked her routine from once- to twice-daily workouts and added rock climbing to the mix.
While Burdis was ultimately eliminated in both seasons 6 and 7 of the show, she was thrilled with the opportunity to connect with the other competitors and put her years of training to work.
“Meeting all the other athletes there and hearing their stories was just as inspirational as it is when you’re watching at home on TV,” she says. “There are circus performers, hair stylists, plumbers—just a nice range of different people, and there’s so much you can learn from all of them.”
Fit bodies & brains
Burdis’s stint in the spotlight spurred her to build a bridge between fitness and her other great passion—learning. And she knew if she connected the two, her school community could thrive. She slowly began developing principles designed to increase physical activity, mental flexibility and improved nutrition.
She started building one-minute “brain breaks” into her students’ routines throughout the day, halting her lessons to lead quick workouts, breathing exercises and activity challenges. Eventually, she added inflatable fitness balls to the classroom as an alternative to regular desk chairs, allowing students to strengthen core muscles while plugging away at assignments. And along the way, she emphasized the need to fuel properly with healthy food.
“We would just train a little bit here and there in the classroom and on the playground,” she says. “By the end of the year, there was such a difference. The students were stronger, more confident, more engaged, more focused. They were fidgeting less and not falling asleep. Some were doing one-armed pullups on the monkey bars. They blew me away with how strong they became.”
Making a difference
Tanya Baumgardner, one of Burdis’s longtime teaching colleagues, says the enthusiasm has been contagious at school and she credits Burdis’s encouragement and workout sessions with helping her maintain an 80-pound weight loss.
“I don’t have the same balance or agility as Jen, but that doesn’t matter to her—she’s so great at giving people the confidence they need to do their best, no matter where they’re starting,” says Baumgardner. “It’s not about competition with her; it’s about camaraderie. That’s what she builds in her classroom and among her colleagues.”
Katrina Stainton, whose daughter Kate was in Burdis’s classroom, likes that she tailors her teaching to fit each student’s learning style and links physical activity with the day’s lessons.
“She was a great inspiration for Kate, who is active but can be a little shy sometimes,” says Stainton. “I like that Kate can have this role model in a person who isn’t boisterous and loud but is accomplishing big things.”
Motivating & mentoring
Burdis understands that not everyone is Ninja Warrior material. But by modeling healthy habits, she makes exercise approachable for people who have long avoided it.
“I don’t preach at people or tell them what they should be doing,” she says. “I just like to share what I’m doing and show them what they can do, too. I like to show a range of workouts and physical activities that give everyone a chance to be successful.”
Baumgardner insists that’s why Burdis is able to get people excited about healthy living.
“Sometimes when you see people like Jen, who may seem larger than life, they can be overwhelming,” she says. “But people really respond to her. She just knows instinctively how to build connections and motivate people to do better.”
Burdis has begun sharing her EduNinja ways with other educators across the country, visiting schools to motivate other teachers and administrators by sharing the strategies that have worked in her classroom.
“I just want to get everybody to move a little bit more,” says Burdis. “I’ve found my purpose and my passion. I want my community to be healthier.”
Get the whole story in Burdis’s book The EduNinja Mindset: 11 Habits for Building a Stronger Mind and Body.
Honored To Be Featured On The Cover of American Profile Promoting Healthy Living
Inspirational Teacher of the Month Award from The San Diego Office of Education and NBC7
Check out this NBC 7 San Diego News Clip when San Diego Office of Education and NBC’s Rory Devine surprise our class and we get to share our daily nutrition, movement, and mindfulness strategies with her. Thanks for inspiring healthy fitness ninjas everywhere. https://bit.ly/2CrFfqn
Award-winning Ninja teacher making a difference at Rowe
By Karen Billing Rancho Santa Fe Review
The Rancho Santa Fe Faculty Association presented fourth grade teacher Jennifer Burdis with an Ovation Award at the Sept. 13 school board meeting. The award is a way to honor California Teachers Association members who have outstanding classroom programs that are teacher-driven, student-centered and focused on student, family and school-wide relations.
Burdis, a 20-year veteran teacher at R. Roger Rowe School, is on a mission to motivate and inspire others to lead a healthy lifestyle.
The former Penn State volleyball player was a competitor on season six and seven of “American Ninja Warrior” in 2014 and 2015. In her life, she has faced bigger obstacles than the physical ones on the TV show, such as overcoming undiagnosed dyslexia, gaining confidence to become a stronger learner and better teacher.
“I believe no challenge is too big to tackle,” Burdis said. “When I look back, it was the challenges in my life that created my biggest joys.”
Recently Burdis released her book “EduNinja Mindset: 11 Habits for Building a Stronger Mind and Body” which touts turning obstacles into opportunities, incorporating more kinesthetic-based learning activities in the classroom and practicing daily healthy habits as a strong foundation for learning.
The lifelong learner is also sharing her lessons on health and wellness through speaking engagements at events such as the California Teachers Summit at Cal State Northridge and with online resources for teachers. She has even run boot camp workouts for Rowe teachers.
“Jen seeks to address the needs of the whole child, to ensure that students are healthy, safe and engaged, supported and challenged. She believes that teachers can provide valuable health and wellness skills that empower them to take charge of their learning,” said Christi Walter, kindergarten teacher. “Inspiring others to have a healthier and happy heart is something Jen really has a passion for and takes pride in.”
Burdis said it has been fun to see how her strategies have worked in other classrooms such as Walter’s and it has been powerful seeing how she can speak up and use her voice to create changes in the whole community. It has been a flying leap for someone who is admittedly quiet and shy and never used to raise her hand in staff meetings.
Few at the school knew there was a ninja in their midst.
Burdis grew up in the rural Pennsylvania town of Orwigsburg, not far from the Appalachian Mountains.
“My school didn’t have a gym,” Burdis said. “My coach rolled out a net on the black top with tire bases.”
She played little league baseball and was the first girl in town to make the all star team. In high school she was a three-sport athlete playing volleyball, basketball and track, where she competed in the long jump and javelin.
She didn’t have the typical club volleyball experience going into playing NCAA Division 1 volleyball but it was a dream come true when she was asked if she was interested in playing for Penn State—her father was a huge Nittany Lion fan and the family had Penn State wallpaper and Penn State lamps in their home.
With her undiagnosed dyslexia, Burdis always had to work harder in school; she struggled with reading, constantly flip-flopping text. When she arrived at Penn State, Coach Russ Rose said he had two expectations for her: She would win every sprinting drill in practice and she would make All-Academic Big 10 every single season.
“I developed coping mechanisms because he raised the bar so high for me,” Burdis said. She listened as hard as she could in class, created study groups and utilized a service that provided class notes for every class because she couldn’t access the text books. “Coach Rose was a pivotal person in my life because he taught me the life skills of grit, never giving up and setting challenges for yourself that you never think you will reach.”
Burdis has been able to tap into those lessons for the rest of her life and Coach Rose never even knew she was dyslexic until she went back to Happy Valley this summer to celebrate his 40th anniversary as the Penn State coach.
At Penn State, she took on the challenge of transitioning from a 5’1’’ high school setter to a defensive specialist, helping the volleyball team win three Big 10 championships and experiencing a memorable national championship game her senior year where they lost to Olympian Kerri Walsh Jenning’s Stanford team. She also lived up to the promise of making All-Academic Big Ten every season and graduated in 1998 with a degree in education.
Becoming the ninja teacher
Burdis came out to California with a friend who was trying to get onto the beach volleyball circuit. She taught one year in La Jolla before landing at R. Roger Rowe.
“I always loved the idea of helping younger people learn new things,” Burdis said. “I get a lot of joy out of teaching and coaching.”
While at Rowe, she continued her education earning a master’s degree in reading and writing curriculum from San Diego State University.
Physically, she also pushed herself by taking on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, earning her blue belt, and training hard in fitness boxing. A friend encouraged her to try out for “American Ninja Warrior” and after finding out that she made the show, she added rock climbing and bouldering to her regimen.
“I was happy with how I did, I got through three obstacles,” said Burdis, noting many at the school didn’t even know she was on the show.
She trained for a whole year for the 2015 season but was eliminated on the second obstacle.
Burdis suffered a setback following that 2015 season, tearing her achilles while running up a wall in parkour training. She was casted, booted and on crutches for four months. It took her two years just to be able to do calf raises on it.
The injury provided an opportunity—the healing time allowed her to concentrate on becoming a positive voice expressing the benefits of health and wellness in school.
“That’s when I really started developing my book, to share what I knew with other people about health, nutrition movement and mindfulness,” Burdis said.
“EduNinja” promotes powerful habits such as setting and achieving meaningful goals, developing grit and flexible thinking, practicing mindfulness to reduce stress and taking care of yourself inside and out.
The book also embraces the idea that all individuals learn differently and to look at obstacles as opportunities.
In Burdis’ classroom, her fourth graders sit on Swiss balls instead of chairs and she incorporates movement into and between lessons. Her students have a physical challenge every month—this month they are working up to doing 19 pushups.
“It’s awesome for their confidence, there’s not one that doesn’t want to do them,” Burdis said of the physical activities. “They crave it, they can’t wait for those moments to be able to move.”
She talks to her students about making healthy food choices, being mindful about serving sizes and becoming label readers. Her class also explored the benefits of the kale, sugar snap peas, spinach, chard and broccoli that they grew in the school garden.
She runs an Edu-Ninja Fit lunch club for students and organizes weekend rock climbing and parkour excursions, working on building community with parents as well.
For the last four years, Burdis has been running the EduNinja 30-Day Health and Wellness Challenge to promote healthy habits and fitness for teachers, students, families and friends. While Burdis provides 30 days of online workouts, participants are encouraged to improve their personal wellness at their own pace, completing their own workouts or committing to increasing their daily step count. The nationwide challenge allows participants to connect on a closed Facebook and encourage each other to reach their goals. As part of the challenge in past years, Burdis ran workouts for Rowe teachers before school.
“My teaching has become so much stronger in these past five years, my classroom management and everything about my teaching has grown. I’m a much more engaging teacher because I’m more mindful of my exercise and the effect it has on my students,” Burdis said. “I thoroughly enjoy teaching and my students are much more engaged and ready to learn.”
Copyright © 2018, Rancho Santa Fe Review
Former Penn State volleyball player gives Norris teachers a push
MARGARET REIST Column Aug 18, 2017 Updated Aug 18, 2017
Margaret Reist | Lincoln Journal Star
This is a tale about connections.
It's a story about the positive power social media can wield, how it helps spread the
message that physical activity, fruits, vegetables and nonfried foods helps kids learn.
It's about how Twitter connected Norris Public Schools Superintendent John Skretta to
California fourth-grade teacher Jen Burdis, brought her from California to a school in the
rolling hills of Southeast Nebraska to tell her story — and in the process convinced her she
should write a book.
“You helped me raise the bar,” Burdis told an auditorium full of teachers and
administrators at Norris this week. “You have a big place in my story.”
The 20-year veteran of California classrooms is a bit of a celebrity in the world of fitness
and education, espousing the same ideas Skretta has been championing for years.
Known as EduNinja, Burdis has competed twice on NBC’s "American Ninja Warrior" and
has taken the passion for fitness, healthy eating and mindfulness she honed training for
the show into the classroom.
She holds yoga sessions with her students to encourage mindfulness. She helped them
make a case for healthier school lunches. She gives them exercise homework and leads
them in activity breaks during the day.
She encourages fellow teachers to create their own wellness plans, to model healthy
behavior for their students through exercise lunch clubs for students or staff and regular workouts.
She's turned that passion into a consulting business to help other educators.
Skretta thought Burdis was the perfect person to inspire his staff. She’d grown up in a
small town, played against the Huskers as a member of the Penn State volleyball team and,
unlike many education fitness consultants, was still teaching.
He knew something about her personal story and how the grit she talks about played out
in her life, and suggested she tell that story to his staff.
"What really works is when you’ve got someone who is living it and has an actually
compelling or interesting story to share around that," he said.
So, for the first time, she stood in front of a large group of educators and told her story.
She told the Norris staff she grew up in the town of Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, with 3,000-
some other residents, including her grandparents — only one of whom graduated from
She didn’t learn the healthy eating habits she practices today there — “the veggies I grew
up with was canned corn” — but she learned to climb trees, run through the woods and
nurture a love for sports in the small mining town.
She was the first girl to make the town’s Little League all-star baseball team and played
high school volleyball and basketball and competed in track.
After high school, Penn State invited her to walk on for volleyball.
"Coach (Russ) Rose asked me if I'd like to play volleyball at Penn State," recalled the woman
who'd grown up in a house with Penn State lamps and Nittany Lions wallpaper. “I said, ‘Is
this a rhetorical question?’”
Rose challenged her to win every running drill and become an Academic All-American. She
thought she could manage the first.
She wasn't so sure about the second because the thing is: she couldn’t read, at least not
Undiagnosed dyslexia had made high school nearly impossible, and she credits a few
teachers with giving her hands-on activities and helping her get through. Today, she
makes discovering her students' learning styles a priority.
“Meeting the needs of kinesthetic learners is important,” she said. “It’s vital.”
In college, she was determined not to let her coach down — and she didn’t, earning
academic awards each year.
“I know it took me probably five times longer to get through the books, but I knew it was
Coach’s expectation for me,” she said.
She remembered his positive messages, incorporated them into her own relationships
She advocates journaling, setting goals, seizing the moment, aspiring to greatness.
She became a blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu and earned a master’s degree before a chance
meeting with a Penn State football player at a gym led to a friendship, and ultimately to
her decision to try out for "American Ninja Warrior."
Other competitors, and those on social media, helped her, she said.
“It’s really important to have those people in your life who can help you meet your goals,”
Skretta, it turns out, became one of those people. His suggestions for her presentation, she
said, led to her decision to write a book and she encouraged the Norris teachers to meet
“I hope today you’re ready to raise the bar,” she said. "I hope going into the school year
you’re ready to kick some butt.”
Alumni Connection, Nudge Leads Burdis to ‘Ninja Warrior’
Varsity 'S' Member Competes in American Ninja Warrior
By: Steve Sampsell - Director of College Relations, College of Communications, Penn State University
Featured on gopsusports.com and Varsity 'S' Club Newsletter.
Sometimes one Penn Stater helps another other without even knowing, and sometimes that leads to an exciting opportunity.
It certainly did for Jen Burdis.
A former varsity women's volleyball player who teaches fourth grade in Carlsbad, Calif., Burdis was home in Orwigsburg, Pa., last November, completing a workout in a local gym, when someone asked her about the focus of her training regime.
"It got me thinking I should work out with a goal in mind," Burdis said. "I didn't know it at the time but that guy was Matt Stankiewitch. With very similar backgrounds -- growing up in the same town, attending the same high school, being student-athletes at Penn State -- we became friends. The next day he took me through a workout, and the day after that I took him through a workout."
Stankiewitch was the center for the Penn State football team from 2008 to 2012. He's now in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Burdis played at Penn State from 1994 to 1998. The two of them even started a book club when Stankiewitch gave Burdis a copy of "The Alchemist."
"I read the book and thought a little bit about my personal journey," Burdis said. "He mentioned the show `American Ninja Warrior' but I didn't think much about."
Still, after Stankiewitch's nudge, watching the show with her boyfriend in California and some encouragement from her former women's volleyball teammates during a trip to campus, Burdis decided to submit an audition tape for the obstacle course competition show that airs Monday nights on NBC.
"A few things happened. I watched a few episodes with my boyfriend and I liked the show," Burdis said. "Then I came back for the women's volleyball reunion. It was there that Teri Wroblewski Schall said, `Bird, you play volleyball like a ninja. I think you should be a ninja warrior. My boys love that show.' I went back to California and then applied."
Burdis had never before auditioned for a television show (although she did once write a letter to Dr. Dre that Ed Lover of "Yo MTV Raps" read on the air), but she put together an audition tape about herself that noted her athletic experiences and even her teaching, with help of a few of her students.
She remains active with activities like beach volleyball, boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, biking, rock climbing and yoga. From that background she began a slightly more rigorous training regime, while trying not to over-train. "I pulled a hip flexor playing volleyball in a charity event for Huntington's Disease a couple of weeks before filming the show," she said. "That was the first challenge."
Burdis competed in the Venice Beach qualifier for the show that airs from May 26 to Sept. 15. This season marks its sixth on the air.
Competitors include men and women from all walks of life, including current and former members of the military, doctors, firemen, school teachers and even a few Olympic gold medalists. They're all competing for an eventual $500,000 grand prize.
When Burdis was selected for "American Ninja Warrior," her students were some of the first to know. She told them after she received the call from Hollywood confirming her spot on the show.
They've been part of a support system that also includes many Penn Staters.
"Former men's basketball player Brian Allen told me `those obstacles are no joke,' and he's right," Burdis said. "The obstacles were some of the most physically demanding things I've done. I was sore from running the course and I train daily. You need a strategy for attacking the course and a smorgasbord of skills -- speed, power, agility, balance, flexibility and mental toughness."
She credits her Penn State experience for providing those skills, which she believes translate well to athletic competitions as well as her fourth-grade classroom. She earned Academic All-Big Ten honors every semester while completing her bachelor's degree in elementary education. On the court, she was a defensive specialist whose job it was to get digs and provide a spark of energy to the team.
"I am so grateful to coach Russ Rose for instilling the core values of what it takes to be successful in whatever you choose to do. There is no easy way to achieve success. It takes continued effort, never letting-up, and always being open to learning new things," Burdis said. "I can easily relate to the fourth graders. I'm a life-long learner, who strives to be a role model, and inspire greatness on a bigger level."
And, completing a wide Penn State circle of influence, Burdis, who returns to campus every year for things such as the Central Pa. Festival of the Arts or team reunions, was the fifth-grade teacher for Lacey Fuller, a senior defensive specialist for the women's volleyball team.
With the show having ignited her competitive fire, Burdis has already discovered a way to get her adrenaline and competitive rush. She found a training center in Southern California that provides a myriad of athletic challenges.
"It's pretty much an adult playground," Burdis said. "And it's great!"
Local Hometown News Coverage From Tim Kelchner, Monica Madeja, Mark Hiller, and the WBRE Wilkes-Barre, PA Team.
Thanks Extra!Ordinary magazine for sharing our passion for American Ninja Warrior.