Give yourself the space to think beyond the day-to-day grind of teaching and establish larger instructional goals.
The act of journaling elicits a wide variety of reactions. Some see it as a self-absorbed, touchy-feely practice only meant for women, whereas others see it as a practice central to their mental health.
Whatever your perception, more and more research underscores the importance of personal writing as a means to increase resilience, decrease stress, as well as improve sleep and performance.
We recognize that teachers today are under a tremendous amount of stress. They are grappling with how to best address the learning gaps and complex social-emotional needs of their students as a result of Covid, and in turn, they often neglect themselves. This has implications not only for their well-being, but also their teaching. When we are not feeling our best, we often can’t do our best.
Capture powerful and positive moments
In my first few years of teaching, my goal was to survive. I had little idea of what I was doing, and I often found myself feeling overwhelmed and like a failure. In discussing this with one of my fellow teachers, she offered a practice that had proven particularly helpful for her. She kept a journal of her experiences. She shared that she would make time — as much as she could over the week — to write out her thoughts, standout moments or challenges, or even reflections about a particular student. Although I didn’t see how I could possibly make time for journaling on top of everything else, I made it a point to write in my journal at the end of every week, even if only for 10 minutes.
Over time, I found myself writing about the positives, to remind myself of the things I was doing right and to celebrate them. I would write about a lesson from the week that went particularly well, and why. I would write about breakthrough moments with students — like Elvis, an emerging ENL student who was finally confident enough in his English to read out loud, or the moment Anthony figured out how to use a number grid to recognize number patterns. I would write about moments of progress and growth, both for me and my students. I didn’t put any expectations or requirements on when I wrote or what I wrote, and it was truly cathartic for me. It helped rekindle my confidence and my sense of optimism.
As my journaling practice evolved, I found myself using it for different purposes. One such way was to set goals, which ranged from personal, to instructional, to academic/professional, and beyond. I would write about ways in which I wanted to strengthen my abilities to differentiate my instruction or find ways to incorporate more math games into our lessons. I would write about wanting to create more boundaries for myself, or a book I wanted to read to help inform and inspire how I was creating community in my classrooms. I wouldn’t just write down the goal — I would break it down into manageable steps, attempting to create micro ideas and possibilities to support the larger purpose. For example, specifics related to my goal around differentiation might look like:
I found this practice to be particularly helpful to me, as it allowed me a space to think about more than just the day-to-day grind of teaching, and identify and explore things that would help keep me grounded in and connected to my larger goals and values as an educator.
One final way that I used journaling in my teaching journey was to create a culture and community that honored reflective writing, prioritizing connections with my students. I wanted to learn about them in ways that typical day-to-day instruction and interactions didn’t always allow.
At least once a week, we’d have journaling time where students could write about anything and everything that was on their mind. If they needed help, I would pose some prompts, but I really attempted to protect this time to give them the opportunity to write unstructured, ungraded, and free of any judgment. And when they wrote, I wrote, in efforts of doing the same.
Our journaling then became a way to make and strengthen connections with one another. Once or twice a month, I would make time to have a conversation with my students, where we’d share what we had been writing about (whatever we were comfortable with), identify any connections between us, and make note of anything new we learned about each other. It was truly a fun and meaningful way to deepen my understanding of my students and our relationships.
Whether you are new to reflective writing and looking to get started, or are looking for ways to freshen up your experiences, I offer you these practices, which I’ve found to be truly helpful. I encourage you to experiment with them and identify some of your own processes and practices around writing that serve to support and preserve your well-being.
The act of journaling can be a powerful means of self-care. Reflecting regularly can give us a sense of agency and control while we work through difficult challenges in the classroom. It can take on many different shapes and sizes depending on what it is you’re trying to achieve and what feels manageable to you.