Introducing the ‘Reimagining the Diary’ Project

Someone writing in a diaryHello! My name is Lucy Kelly and I’m the PI (Principal Investigator) for the ‘Reimagining the Diary’ project, which explores diary-keeping and reflective practice as a positive tool for teacher wellbeing.

The pilot phase with Martyn Reah and Teacher5aday was launched at the end of 2020, so I thought it would be useful to share my experiences – and my own journey of using the Diary Toolkit – here.

Here’s a brief overview of the project. This is taken from a section I’ve written for Jamie Thom’s forthcoming book on supporting teachers experiencing anxiety.

The ‘Reimagining the Diary’ Project (currently funded by Brigstow and ESRC IAA, University of Bristol)

Led by Dr Lucy Kelly (School of Education, University of Bristol), with Dr Catherine Kelly (School of Law, University of Bristol) and Stand+Stare (creative partners)

The ‘Reimagining the Diary’ (2018) project explores reflective practice (e.g. reflective diary-writing/ journaling) as a positive tool for individual teacher wellbeing. In a profession recognised as one of the most ‘stressful’ (Holmes, 2019: 20), this practice might be a ‘small, but important, step’ (Kelly, 2020: online) in addressing the current wellbeing crisis within the sector (ibid).[1]

In both phases, we worked with a group of fifteen teachers at various stages of their career, and with differing levels of experience. In Phase 1, participants chose a diary – plain notebook, kindness jotter, sound journal – and kept it for a week during term-time, before reflecting on the process via an online survey. Participants’ entries were not analysed because we wanted the reflections to be as authentic as possible. Notwithstanding the limitations of our study – including sample size and duration – our results reveal that ‘over 93 per cent of participants perceived an improvement in their wellbeing when keeping a diary, using it as a tool for celebration and catharsis and an opportunity to look at an event or situation from different perspectives. Despite time being the biggest factor to consider, 86.7 per cent of the group would advise other teachers to keep a diary, and 60 per cent said that they would continue this practice’ (Kelly, 2020: online).

Using the Diary as a ‘stress buster’

In terms of catharsis, the diary was ‘a safe place to explore your world’ (Johnstone, p.xvii) because it helped participants turn the abstract into the ‘concrete’ (Hayes, p.46), making it much easier to deal with. Extracting thoughts and feelings onto the page encouraged users to separate themselves from the day’s experiences; writing became ‘a release […] somewhere for your thoughts to go, because they don’t normally go anywhere else’ (RtD, focus group 2019). Furthermore, the diary had a therapeutic quality, acting as a ‘venting tool’ (ibid). Interestingly, although time was the biggest factor, participants felt ‘bereft’ if a day was missed, recognising the extra ‘thoughts charging around’ that hadn’t been ‘processed’ (RtD, survey 2019).

Using the diary as ‘a stress buster’ (RtD, survey 2019) to reflect on the working day (which 86.7% did), helped participants position themselves at the centre of their own ‘narratives’ (Carr, 2006: 320), because ‘teachers […] need an outlet as we are also people with lives and worries’ (RtD, survey 2019). Indeed, the diary was an opportunity ‘to switch off’ (RtD, survey) and insert boundaries in a profession without any (Kelly, 2020: online; Kelly, forthcoming).

Yet our findings also reveal that teachers must document positive emotions and experiences too – such as ‘moments […] enjoyed in the classroom’ (RtD, survey 2019). This celebratory practice improves self-esteem and self-confidence (Hayes, 2018) because it refocuses teachers’ attention onto what is going well in the classroom and beyond – however small – instead of what isn’t.

This links to perspective – the final key theme from Phase 1. The diary enabled participants to reconnect to their ‘why’ (Howard, 2020) and what teaching meant to them, personally, including their aspirations and ‘philosophy’ (RtD, survey 2019).

a notebook containing writing

Bespoke reflective practice

Yet, our Phase 1 survey data demonstrated that reflective practice, like wellbeing, is bespoke. To move the project forward, we had to consider a format that wasn’t prescribed but still offered structure and choice to those who needed it. Furthermore, if we were asking teachers to devote some of their limited time to reflection, then the format had to be aesthetically pleasing, accessible, non-judgemental, and non-expectant. The idea of it being a private, slow space was also important: how could we help teachers slow down and bookend their day in an engaging, meaningful way?

From these musings the research team came up with the ‘Diary Toolkit’; a smorgasbord of reflective practice. The ‘Toolkit’ reimagines, and reclaims, the loaded term ‘diary’ (Kelly et al, 2020) for twenty-first-century teachers. The ‘Toolkit’ moves beyond the traditional written diary format, reimagining it into a multi-modal, playful and creative space where participants are encouraged to try out a range of reflective activities that move beyond the traditional mode of writing. The ‘Toolkit’ also includes ‘Transition’ and ‘Reflection’ phases. Before completing the main activity, participants use a spinner/dice to decide on a mindfulness practice – such as drinking a hot beverage slowly or listening to a favourite piece of music – to encourage a reflective mode of thinking. The ‘Reflection’ stage invites participants to reflect on what they would like to do with the main activity – share, archive, use or destroy – in order to question the audience and purpose of the diary and, perhaps, to let go of prior expectations.

The ‘Diary Toolkit’

Participants kept the ‘Toolkit’ for a week during the spring term and were asked to try – and reflect on – each main activity once. The ‘Transition’ and ‘Reflection’ stages were also included. As with Phase 1, personal entries weren’t looked at, but a detailed survey was completed to gather views. Initial feedback on the ‘Diary Toolkit’ is very positive: 93% of participants preferred it to another diary format and 86% would like to continue using it. Most teachers enjoyed the range of reflective practices: it was playful and creative, whilst providing structure for those participants who, having had a full day in school, didn’t want to make further decisions. Additionally, 71% of participants would recommend the ‘Toolkit’ to other teachers and, although time was still the main factor (alongside COVID-19 and lockdown), 93% liked the ‘Transition’ stage because it helped them to separate school/home and ritualise reflective practice. Participants praised the positive impact the ‘Toolkit’ had on their wellbeing too. As one individual summarised: ‘I came into this project last year imagining that a diary entry was just about writing about what happened that day. My eyes have now been opened to a plethora of reflective activities that have helped me keep sane!’ (all RtD, survey 2020).

In Phase 3, we are working with Martyn Reah and the #teacher5aday community. We have recruited 70 teachers to use a PDF of the ‘Toolkit’ between September and December. Participants will start the project using the ‘blanket’ ‘Toolkit’, but they will then have the opportunity to create their own, custom-made ‘Diary Toolkit’ based on their favourite activities. We really hope this bespoke approach to reflective practice will help teachers reclaim the diary as a space for their personal and professional selves to flourish (Kelly, forthcoming).

Thank you for reading! If you have any questions, then you can find me on Twitter at @drlucykelly.

References

  • Carr D (2006) Moral education at the movies: on the cinematic treatment of morally significant story and narrative. Journal of Moral Education 35(3): 319-333, DOI:10.1080/03057240600874448
  • Hayes, M.C. 2018. Write Yourself Happy: The Art of Positive Journalling. London: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd.
  • Holmes, E., 2019. A Practical Guide to Teacher Wellbeing. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Howard, K., 2020. Stop talking about wellbeing: a pragmatic approach to teacher workload. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Limited
  • Johnstone C (2018) Dare to be Happier: An Introduction to the Power of Journaling. Ayrshire: Snowdrop Press.
  • https://impact.chartered.college/article/reclaiming-teacher-wellbeing-reflective-diary-writing/> [Accessed 10 July 2020]. DOI: 10.1080/14484528.2020.1763232
  • Reimagining the Diary’ survey, University of Bristol, April 2019. Data available on formal request.
  • ‘Reimagining the Diary’ survey, University of Bristol, April 2020. Data available on formal request.
  • ‘Reimagining the Diary’ focus group, University of Bristol, May 2019. Data available on formal request.

[1] What follows is taken from: Kelly, L. 2020. Reclaiming teacher wellbeing through reflective diary writing. IMPACT, 9. Available at: <https://impact.chartered.college/article/reclaiming-teacher-wellbeing-reflective-diary-writing/> [Accessed 10 July 2020]; and Kelly, L. Forthcoming. Writing Wellbeing: using reflective diary-writing to support English teacher wellbeing. In A. Watson and R. Newman, eds. Due 2021. A Practical Guide to Teaching English in the Secondary School. 2nd edition. Abingdon: Routledge. Ch. 22.