This article is written by Truth for Teachers contributor Mary Beth Kester.
Aww, summer. It’s been quite a year, and I’m excited to have some time to spend with my family and kids. I’m ready to enjoy lounging around, recharging in a hammock, and rereading a few of my favorite books. I might even try to sneak in a small vacation.
I must admit that not all of my reading choices this summer will be relaxing beach books. I’m also starting to reread my professional books. I’m changing positions next year, and need to go back and remind myself how to teach reading and writing. I like having the summer to slowly pick up these books as I feel the urge and wade through them. It allows me to rediscover them when I have the mental space to appreciate them.
Recently, I picked up one of the books I used heavily a few years ago, but hadn’t needed for my current position. It was like rediscovering an old friend, and within a few pages I found myself reaching for my professional journal to take notes. I wanted to make sure I captured my ideas before they got away. It was such a good reminder of the teacher I used to be, and the teacher I wanted to be again. It was a beautiful feeling.
When the summer winds down, I know that I will be thankful to have my thoughts and ah-ha moments jotted together in that professional journal. In the fall, before I start my planning for the year, I always begin by reviewing my journal. It’s the place for my reflections on my practice, my professional goals, and my own learning and ideas. I find it to be an essential starting place when I begin to think about how to set up next year’s teaching.
I never used to journal…aren’t those notes jotted in my planner enough?
If you haven’t heard of a professional journal, or you haven’t used one, you aren’t alone. While I often have required my students to reflect and journal about the books they read, the math strategies they used, or the contributions they make to a group project, I never used to take the time to write my own reflections on my practice.
I was introduced to the idea of a professional journal by my first principal. She was mentoring a new teacher, and her year-long assignment to her was to keep a journal of how things were going in her classroom. She was to write in it what she was learning each day about her teaching and reflect on her practice. When she would meet with the principal, the journal was to be the basis for their conversations about her professional growth. It would provide evidence of how her practice was changing, and the opportunity to look across her teaching as a whole to find trends of what was working and where there might be opportunities for improvement.
I, however, didn’t begin journaling right away. After all, who has the time? My reflections are evident in the annotations of my materials, right? There are sticky notes on pages in my math teacher’s manual, sometimes with diagrams of better ways to show a concept or with problems crossed out. There are notes in my digital planner about what to do or not do again. My reading books used to have sticky note questions in places I wanted to stop and discuss the story with students. Even my digital files have notes and comments on them for revisions. I usually assumed that this was enough evidence of reflection.
What I discovered though, was that these types of notes are really about my instruction, and don’t fully encapsulate my teacher practice. They don’t allow for reflection on what I am learning and how I was growing as an educator. They don’t always show evidence of my growth or help me to set goals. The annotations are useful, certainly, and for a time I thought they were adequate.
Professional journaling became my catharsis during stressful times
Six years ago my resistance to journaling changed. My husband and I decided to make the jump to international education. We both loved teaching and wanted to try something new. We thought that this might be a good fit for us. We took jobs in Mexico at an American school where we did much the same work as we had done in the United States. It was the right move for our family, but a big transition on all sides. I was back to work full-time. My kids were starting school for the first time. We moved to a new house, a new country, and a new language.
The change was startling. I found myself journaling to help me make sense of the changes in my personal and professional life. The advice my first principal gave to keep a professional journal became salient as I, too, crossed into a new teaching experience.
What began as catharsis has evolved into something more powerful. It’s become a self-reflection tool for my teaching practice as a whole. Journaling has helped me to celebrate what is going well, think through what needs work, and mentally work through conflict and stress.
It is what allows me to have one place where I can write about what works for a class (group work, anyone?), what lessons I will never do again (family trees come readily to mind), and how I plan to handle difficult situations with coworkers and parents. I
It’s the place where I can recognize when I make mistakes, and by doing so offer myself the grace to move past it.
It allows me to pour my stress onto a page and leave it there so I can go home and enjoy my family and other activities. This year, as COVID-19 uprooted much of what I thought was unchangeable about education, I continue to find solace and hope by journaling.
My journal has evolved into a powerful celebration of growth
While sticky notes on the math book are evidence of a change in instruction, it doesn’t help me to set goals, see long-term changes, or celebrate success in my teaching practice as a whole.
When I look back through my journal, I am able to be reminded of who I was, and see who I am becoming. I am able to look back at my notes from teaching books and my ideas about how a new teaching or management system could work, and then see my reflections as I put it into practice.
It helps me to identify what I did well, or as planned, and what things I may not have done the way I should have. Reflecting allows me to look back over not just the week or the unit, but over a few years of teaching and see how my practice is changing.
Sometimes I see that I am becoming more the teacher I want to be, and I can see how my values are more consistently playing out in my instruction. Other times, it helps me to remember the teacher I was, and see how to correct my course.
There aren’t many opportunities for daily feedback as a classroom teacher. Students can give some feedback, and coaches or administrators may offer suggestions as they come through your room, but most of the day-in, day-out teaching goes largely unseen by other adults. Through journaling, I feel as if I am able to take a step towards coaching myself. I’m able to look at my own practice, my own goals, and my students’ needs and to honestly evaluate how I am doing.
In some ways, it has been more helpful for me than many of the yearly evaluations I am issued by my principal. It offers not only a representative log of my growth, but it also gives me a place to celebrate my own successes in a way that is authentic.
Easy ways to get started with professional journaling
If you are looking to try a professional journal, it’s easy to get started. My professional journal is small and unassuming. It’s a composition book that I write in as I feel the need.
It’s not fancy. It doesn’t have a habit tracker or bullet journal markings. There are no beautiful borders or titles. Though, of course, you could include any or all of those things. Instead, mine is really more about function than form. I date it whenever I feel I have something I want to remember and I let my ideas flow.
Most posts are short and take only a few minutes. Most days, I write about what is most pressing on my mind. This may include:
- Lessons that went well
- Strategies that worked and why I think they worked this time
- Strategies that didn’t work, and why I think they didn’t.
- What I want to do next time
- What mistakes I made, and how I can do better
- Celebrations – times when something went right and I want to remember it
- Where I am emotionally and how I can move forward – this has been particularly true in the time of COVID-19 when it’s so hard for me to have any forward momentum.
- What I must remember before starting the next school year
The reflection at the end of the year with an eye towards what I want to change or do differently for next year is key. At the end of every year, I write myself a quick summary of what worked that year, what I want to try for next year, and what I learned. It almost always has the heading, “Things to Remember Next Year:” It is the first thing I read before starting to plan for fall, and it always helps me to focus on what I have learned as an educator and what my professional development goals should be for the summer. When I’m looking at workshops, webinars, or seeing new books pushed on Twitter, having already set goals for myself about how I want to grow helps me to choose wisely with my time and money.
I also find that at key transition points – such as before returning to school after a break, or the end of a unit, I make sure to flip back through my journal and reread what I’ve written. It’s often enlightening. I’m reminded of what I do well, which helps me to experience satisfaction in my work and a sense of accomplishment. It also helps me to see what changes I want to make, and allows me to plan to do things differently in the future. It reminds me of who I was, who I am, and who I want to become.
Tips for maintaining a teacher journaling practice
If you are looking for a way to reflect and guide your professional growth, manage your stress, and help you clearly see the places you are making an impact, I would recommend giving a professional journal a try. Below are a few tips:
- Write as often as you like. Don’t make this a chore. If you write daily, it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes at the end of the day.
- Bulleted notes work fine. The only person who will read this is you, so it doesn’t need to be perfect.
- Choose a format that makes your life easy. If you prefer paper, a small notebook or composition book works great. If you like digital, a Google or Word document that you continually add to with dates is a simple solution. If you want something digital but already formatted, there are countless journal apps you can easily use on your phone. If you are afraid you will forget, www.ahhlife.com is free and will send you a daily email that you can reply to whenever you want to add something to your journal. The site compiles your writing into a downloadable journal for you.
- Write a letter to yourself at the end of the year. The end of the year is a great time to reflect on everything, and taking the time to consolidate what you have learned can help you leave any mental load in your journal while you vacation and have your goals and reminders ready for you to pick up in the fall.
- Put your summer thoughts and learning into the journal. It will be helpful for you to have it all in one place when you begin planning to return to school in the fall.
- Try leaving your burdens in the journal, especially during the school year. It’s a complicated time right now. Not only do we all live with the normal stress of teaching, but also both you and your students are dealing with a pandemic, loss of life as we knew it, and loss of loved ones. It’s okay to give yourself the space to express if things are not okay, even if there’s not an easy way to fix it right now. Sometimes just allowing yourself to notice and express what is happening can help.
- If you get stuck, consider one or more of the following questions:
- What did you learn about your teaching today?
- What worked well? Why?
- What was a spectacular failure? Why?
- What do you plan to do differently next time?
- What did you notice about a specific student?
- Was your job sustainable today? Why or why not?
- What do I need to do to be emotionally/physically/mentally ready for tomorrow?
- What good advice did you receive?
- What ideas did you learn that you want to try?
- What is particularly difficult right now?
- What student needs did you meet? What needs do you want to work to meet?
- What challenged you?
- What do you want your teaching to look like next time (or year, or unit)?
Remember, your journal is a tool. It’s there to help, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. As long as it’s useful to you, then it’s doing its job. The more often you use it, and look back through it, the more helpful it will be. If you are using a journal professionally already, or if you give it a try, I’d love to hear how it works for you in the comments!
About the Author
Mary Beth Kester has a degree in Middle Childhood Education, and a Masters in Science Education. She has taught in the United States, Mexico, and Kuwait. When she’s not at school, she enjoys skiing, biking, and hanging out with her family.