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Let’s start at the very beginning – the humble page a day A5 diary.

The power of journaling for self-reflection from teenager, professional, to adult-hood. With over twenty years carving out a career as a teacher, middle manager and eventually faculty head in esteemed grammar schools in the North West of England, Hayley McDonnell is well versed in the field of self-reflection as a tool to make progress. Taking a step away from the permanence of this position she has used the time to create her own self-reflection and plot her own personal journey from teenager to adulthood and discover how the power of writing has never really gone away. From simple diary writing to daily journaling and the impact both have had on her personal life.

I kept a diary from the age of 14 up to the age of 20.  It was always on my Christmas list and I loved knowing that I was going to receive this gift and I was never disappointed and always excited.  I had a mantra that I would not read my diary from one year to the next and I kept that promise to myself.  Surprisingly really when I have a habit of reading the last page or last few pages of a novel I may be reading either one that I am enjoying or the opposite not.  I have been musing on this recently as I have ventured into the world of journaling as an adult and have concluded why I didn’t read back, but more on that later.

As an adult the temptations of diary writing as a means of telling my own personal story were replaced with degree notes, post-graduate notes and of course a plethora of essays in-between.  These were then superseded when I started teaching at a Grammar school in the North West of England, by a traditional teacher’s planner where I planned and organised my academic year by the term, half term, week and lesson.  Planning lessons, assessing pupil progress, developing my own professional career became my diary or journal not of choice but of necessity.  I have recently re-acquired my “teacher’s planners” from the past 21 years of teaching and have glanced through them to reveal an oversight of my career and progress from classroom teacher to middle manager in a different Grammar school and beyond.  None of this day to day planning, however, gives rise to the immediate day to day emotion I was feeling.  There is no reference to what I was looking forward to or the challenges I was going to face that day or week and more importantly how I was going to over come them.  There is no mention of goals for me personally or how I felt when I achieved something great or how I felt when I looked at my every growing to-do list.  On reflection I was on a hamster wheel with the perpetual turning of the wheel to represent X weeks until Christmas only Y until Easter and then Z weeks until Summer.  The same applies to those school holiday weeks too, I have 2 weeks off, I have 6 weeks off and so on.

I was predominantly off this hamster wheel for the year 2018.  A family bereavement which affected me hugely and a strong desire to do something else with my life has meant that my teachers’ planner has been largely blank and, in that sense, I didn’t have anything physically written to mark the passing of this time.  What I realised however is that my love and need for writing had never diminished and in a pursuit of looking for an alternative I have discovered the power of journaling.

The middle (wo)man.

Journaling has been a whole new world for me and one if I am honest, I didn’t know even existed. Working in education and in the context I have found myself in, there was little room for the encouragement of self – reflection and goal setting in a personal perspective.   To be clear self-reflection and goal setting is a stable feature in education for both students and staff and I will assume most management organisations, but from my perspective this feature has never been about personal progress beyond the confines of the employer’s walls.  I have even found the process quite restricting as ultimately the target, and goal setting came from top down.  This meant that when at the reflection stage there was always a realisation and then a sense of disappointment at not completing the tasks set at the required standard.  Not having absolute ownership over targets has a huge effect on the motivation of the individual and I cite over 20 years of teaching students to qualify this statement.  If the students don’t see or are interested in the result their motivation wanes.  Regular assessment in all guises helps to keep the momentum going and contributes to the overall end goal.  So, target setting and reflection has been a mainstay in my professional life from both being a manager and setting targets and as one on the receiving end of working towards my targets, remember the top down system I referred to that many of you will be able to resonate with so much?

It is for this reason among many that I have found personal power in the concept of journaling.  I am the top middle and bottom in the whole process of personal journaling.  I am in charge of setting my goals, reflecting on my goals and always finding beauty and positivity in what I have achieved no matter how small.  This sense of control was initially overwhelming as it was a system and framework, I was unused to working within.  However, because of my childhood love for writing a diary I very quickly re-kindled my love and found a joy in my daily ponderings at the beginning and end of every day.  My chosen journal is small enough to carry around whilst being big enough to provide a chance to write the key focus’ and in fact allows no room for loquacious musings.

Today and everyday I use my journal at the beginning middle and end of my day.  My beginning is when I create three statements citing what I am grateful for.  Anybody can write “I am alive… my day has endless possibilities” but I have found that I write about my family, opportunities that I do have that day to make progress in any area.  Theses statements are compounded with a daily affirmation started with the prefix “I am….”  This statement particularly resonates with me from an academic point of view.  20 years as a Theology teacher and teaching mainly New Testament to my A-level grammar school students I am well versed with the “I am ..” phrase as part of my taught curriculum.  In John’s Gospel there are 7 statements of Jesus started with “I am….” and it is understood that Jesus makes these bold statements and the writer of the gospel refers to them as opportunities to reiterate the claim that Jesus made about who and what he was, his mission and purpose, his desires for others, and how he was going to achieve it.  I always took this opportunity as part of my teaching to ask my students to use this as an opportunity to reflect on who they were as part of their journey and create their own “I am “statements.  How ironic that I didn’t see this opportunity as something I could have been doing myself.

The “I am” affirmation that I make as part of my journaling process today is used to remind myself of what I know about myself, of what I am certain or indeed controversially what I am going to try and do, feel, create, experience that day.  Writing it down makes it real, it almost becomes part of you and I have found myself referring to my statement during the day just as a reminder to ensure I am living the intention I originally set out.

Never an end just perpetual new beginnings.

At the end of the day, and I’m not talking figuratively there is yet another opportunity for positivity as I am invited to write down the amazing things that have happened to me that day.  The word amazing means causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing or even excellent.  If taken literally I think I would find it impossible some days to write anything at all, but understood from a more colloquial view, or at least the view I choose to use, I focus on what aspects of joy and positivity I have found in my day.  It doesn’t have to have caused me great wonder or be deemed as excellent to warrant inclusion and that is quite simply the joy of journaling.  You are free to write what you want, how much you want, when you want. The targets you set for the day, “I am” are completely yours, and the self-reflection aspect at the end of the day focus on the positives, the wonder, the new, the different and exciting and as always you choose.  It really doesn’t matter if you forget your affirmation, it doesn’t matter if you live your day that totally contradicts your statement because it is your day and it is your affirmation.  This is always confirmed by the amazing statements you write irrespective of what you wrote at the beginning or middle sections or if your day turned out completely different to how you intended.  The key words are your, you, choices, freedom and opportunity.

The difference with journaling today is that unlike a diary I don’t have to plot the events of the day and then look back and see what I was doing, (Social media can do that for me). Similarly unlike target setting and self-reflection from a corporate view, journaling allows me to focus on the here and now and more importantly how I feel, what I am grateful for and what I have found the most wonderful when I think back to what I have experienced during that day. When referring back to my teenage diary where I put pressure on myself to complete everyday so there wasn’t a blank page with the day and date presented starkly at the top, journaling gives you the choice if you want to write or just have a day of thoughtful meditations and let that be enough. For me personally if there has been a day where I really haven’t wanted to acknowledge anything that specific day, for example my Mum’s birthday, I know that when I do look back I won’t be looking at a blank page.  Equally on some of those morose days I have reverted to focusing on my senses and have written about what I have seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelt and have focused on the great outdoors as my source.  The senses has become even more important when I have started and made progress in writing my first non-fiction book and with my emerging business – both big goals and dreams of mine that I am starting to realise.

On that point I have most recently read so much about planning and business goal – setting and with the changing of the year the old cliché’ of resolutions rises its head.  Like most people any resolutions I have made at the beginning of new years have not been quickly forgotten but have not been followed through leading to another feeling of disappointment for a task not concluded.  Journaling on the contrary has no expectations, no beginning or end date, nothing is required except for the mind, and ideally paper and a pen.

At this instrumental point in my personal life I have found the power of journaling to be of prime importance to me daily. As referred to earlier the feelings of bereavement due to the loss of my Mum, and the somewhat forced change of direction in my professional life has meant I have had to find a new way of living and a “new me”. As I have been working through different self-employment opportunities to find myself in the position that I am now, journaling has never forced me to make decisions about the direction I should or should not be taking.  By simply focusing on feelings, I have found the beginnings of a path-way I intend to start up for my own professional future and living a lifestyle that resonates with me.  Not withstanding that as mentioned I am mid-way through writing a book with a focus on how to implement the mandatory features of SMSC into a school curriculum and ethos whilst ensuring it is meaningful for students and outstanding for Ofsted – it’s a working title.  I have plans to write one for church school and in my 5-year plan will write a book all about events and festivals from a religious and secular view with constant meaningful reflection points for the reader to consider. To support this, I am working with Jessica Killingley https://www.jessicakillingley.com/plan-publish-promote and have slipped in and out of main-scale teaching albeit on a temporary basis and as such I am in the fortunate position to not have to subscribe to the target-setting and reflection that I would typically be associated with.  I have planned and mapped out my year and I will of course always have my own personal journal to refer to, to remind me of my true values, intentions and goals.

The journal I have been using is called “The Gratitude Journal – Release the Inner You” and has been created by Kiki Kirby of Kiki Kirby coaching.  https://www.kikikirbycoaching.co.uk/I have not yet had the good fortune of meeting Kiki but was lucky enough to part of a webinar  Kiki was hosting and her focus was very much on the self and the goals, we set for ourselves, how to achieve them and of course the emotions attached.  At that point her words struck a chord with me, but it wasn’t until I started using the journal that I felt a particular draw to her cause.   Apart from the reasons mentioned already about why I love journaling and using this journal has meant so much to me personally, I want to mention the reminders that are found amongst the pages which I use almost as a way of checking back into the tangible world beyond my cogitations.  I have always been a fan on quotes and have used them regularly in my teaching career as motivation tools or as a means of identifying my students with a scholar studied, figure or person from history.  Kiki includes quotes obviously from others like “Creativity takes Courage – Henry Matise” but there are plenty to find with no reference to the author like “Dreams don’t work unless YOU do”. Either way they are a reminder to me that despite my words of the day we are all connected to each other as we all have a purpose, hopes and dreams, and are all trying to find our own through this journey we call life.

To conclude with some thoughtful conclusions about why I believe I didn’t read back my teenage scribblings until at least a few years ago and they were again relegated to the loft.   As an insecure teenager I would have been put off reading and referring to my then ramblings about unrequited love, examination worries, friendship issues, fashion, hair-styles and make-up.  Like the hamster wheel of an academic year the sense that this life I was living back in the 1980’s was on a perpetual motion of little change there was no motivation to read re-read and remind myself of the then mistakes I had made.  Of course, I understand today that this was a relatively normal teenage life.

The power of journaling.

Journaling can never be negative, accusingly self-reflective but always up-lifting, life-affirming and personally positive in any you choose.  It can be started and ended at any point in the year or in your life and if you  do want to read back you will know that you are doing so with the knowledge that you will be reminding yourself of all that you are grateful for, all your intentions and perhaps even more importantly all the amazing experiences and feelings you have had.  What can be better than that?

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