As educators, many of us want our students to become more nuanced, reflective thinkers, but we do not always take the time necessary to apply the same standard to our teaching. Improving your classroom practice isn’t always about finding the right technological tool or incorporating the latest pedagogical fad. Deeper, more meaningful change often originates from within.
Writing about your teaching is perhaps the single most powerful first step you can take on the road to becoming the kind of instructor you wish to be. Documenting your thoughts, feelings, and observations can help you to better understand what is happening in your classroom as well as provide a solid baseline for introducing changes in your practice. Having a single place for this writing (like a journal or word document you regularly update) makes it easier to view the big picture of your growth as an educator.
Although the first week of a new semester seems like the right time to begin a new teaching journal, in reality there is no better time to begin than today. Is it the middle of the semester? Make your first entry an overview of what has happened so far. Are you beginning your journal during the summer or winter break? Begin by brainstorming some ideas you’d like to try in the upcoming semester. The end of the semester is a great time to start, as you can begin by looking back on what has just happened in your courses and make some notes towards future improvements. Whatever point in the year it is, just do yourself a favor and start writing.
Before you begin your journal, here are a few things to consider.
As you write, try to keep in mind that your goal is to help you become a better instructor. Resist the urge to waste ink bewailing bad student behaviour or intractable administrators. Focus whenever possible on your own behaviors and how you can improve them. That’s what you have the most power to change in the classroom.
When you journal, you can write about whatever you want, but try to focus on three things. 1) What worked in the classroom that you’d like to do again. Make sure you’re specific enough that you can reproduce it in the future. 2) What didn’t work out the way you wanted. Write about what you think went needs improvement. 3) What didn’t work that you think should be cut from your future practice. Write to yourself why you are abandoning this practice. In all three cases, you want to be able to go back years from now and understand what happened and what your thoughts were at the time.
Ideally, we’d all have the time to write a lengthy journal entry after every class meeting, but many of us live such hurried lives that one substantial journal entry a week is more practical. Block the time out in your calendar/planner and commit to it. Journaling isn’t a frivolity; you’re making a concerted effort to become a better you! Surely, that’s worth at least 30 minutes out of your week.
This question covers both where you are writing and where your writing goes--that is, what you will write in. The location where you write matters; you need a place where you can concentrate, whether it be your office or your favorite cafe. The place where you put your writing needs to be convenient for updating, storage, and retrieval. That could mean a fancy blank journal from a stationery store, an ordinary composition notebook, a word processor file, or even a public-facing blog. Choose the venue that you find most welcoming, that makes it easiest for you to engage your own thoughts.
For many people, starting can be the hardest part of journaling. The desire to write something both deeply insightful and grammatically perfect results in nothing but writer’s block. Give yourself permission to be an imperfect writer! No one is evaluating this writing and no one needs to be able to understand what is written but you.
Although the simple act of writing about your classroom experiences can help you feel more in control of the situation, remember that the main purpose of your teaching journal is to provide you with a record that you can consult at a later date. Go back and reread at least some of your journal entries a couple of times a year, particularly at the start of a semester, or when (re)designing a course.
Most entries in your teaching journal should arise out of your experiences in the classroom, but don’t hesitate to add other things that are relevant, such as feedback received from classroom observations, thoughts generated after reviewing end-of-the-semester student evaluations, or notes taken at a professional development workshop. If reviewing it could help you think and grow as an instructor, there’s room for it in your teaching journal.
Brookfield, Stephen D. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass, 1995.
Stevens, Dannelle D. and Joanne E. Cooper. Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight, and Positive Change. Stylus, 2009.
Jeff Rients is Senior Teaching & Learning Specialist at Temple's Center for the Advancement of Teaching.
Image by Aliko Sunawang from Pixabay