Wednesday, October 14, 2009


"Take a photo of your inner self, for you will not always be the teacher you are now."

- from "Hit the Ground Running: Advice for Elementary Teachers," in the new edition of Educating Esmé

People are always coming up or e-mailing after reading Educating Esmé and saying to me, "boy, sister-girl, I could have written that book." Well, there's plenty of room on the shelf, people! The reason I sought to publish the diary was to begin a conversation about what works and doesn't work in education, so we can stop teaching with our doors closed. Keeping a diary opens a door, as does all of your writing, whether for publication, exercise or mental health. My experiences are different than yours, but together, we can share what's true. With that in mind, here are some starters for your own teaching journal:
  • Begin: I was somebody's hero today. Or: I was somebody's villain today. Or: I was somebody's friend today. Or: I was somebody's teacher today.
  • What you learned from your worst teacher.
  • Reflect: What do I have to share in the classroom that is unique? What will they remember about me?
  • Make a timeline of your reading--or math--or science--or teaching life story.
  • Who would you like to thank for where you are on your path?
  • Poem springboards:
- "Daydreams at a Teacher's Meeting"
- "Before the Day Begins"
- "Rules are Meant to be Broken"
  • Fantasize how a student's life could be different. What wish would you grant for that child if you could?
  • Come up with fake awards for the kids (cleanest desk, most nose-picking, most trips to the pencil sharpener?). Don't forget to come up with one for yourself!
  • Jot down lists:
- What you had for lunch;
- What you read aloud;
- Wish lists, shopping lists, sh*t lists
- What makes you laugh, and what makes you cry;
  • Two line observations of students.
  • Write a conversation with a parent or administrator as if it were a page from a play.
  • Write a "Dear Abby" letter of advice to your future self.
  • Reflect: "My runner up career." How can you bring that interest or other aspects of that work into the classroom now?
  • Fantasize: "My day off."
  • What you learned today!
A few words of advice about keeping a diary: keep a notebook in the bathroom. I know that sounds nasty, but appreciate that especially during the first year of teaching, that may be the only time you have to yourself. The other thing is, it's typical to start diaries and not to finish them, and people often feel bad about that. Don't beat yourself up if you don't have an entry every single day; even if you write something once every few months, over time, you'll be surprised by all that you can know about yourself, and how much change you can recognize. Finally, don't think about an audience. In a time of your life when you are doing so much to serve others, journal-keeping is for you, write for you. When I wrote what became Educating Esmé, I was not writing for publication, and I did not compose entries thinking anyone would read them (except for my great-grandchildren). If I had, the writing might have been very different. I would have been more mannered about expressing my exchanges with administration and and self-conscious about sharing my most personal (and sometimes ephemeral) thoughts. I would have written more about the accomplishments of my colleagues (there were many, definitely enough to fill a book) instead of focusing on my own isolation. I certainly would have chosen to make myself look more...uh...demure. Perhaps my profanity would not be written in caps.

From the real diary that became Educating Esmé

Instead, it is what it is. I can look at it and see an honest reflection of a year, with emotions that blow up to the size of weather balloons. I also appreciated that in writing the diary I managed to capture a fleeting picture of some children that I really came to love. Nowadays, everything is about "getting it out there," everything that's said has to be said to the whole world, immediately. But I'm glad and grateful for the little bit of time I spent using my most honest voice just for me. I hope that's something you'll do for yourself, too, wherever it leads, and whatever portions you decide to ultimately share in the interest of the profession.

This post is dedicated to the late and very great Dr. Ron Saiet, a professor I had at Northeastern Illinois University, who encouraged me so fervently to keep journals during my student teaching observations. Please feel free to share a diary entry of your own (anonymous posts welcome) or a link to a favorite teacher blog in the comments section below! Remember, if you need more inspiration you can listen to an abridged version of my diary for free by clicking here. Don't forget that your students can write alongside you, too; check out the great new children's books about reading and writing, including Esther Hershenhorn's S is for Story and John Perry's The Book That Eats People by clicking here, and springboards for childhood memoir writing for young and old based on my book Sing a Song of Tuna Fish by clicking here.

Give it a try! Nobody has to read it if you don't want them to, and it sure beats lesson planning. Happy writing, all!

Thanks to Vermeer, Cassatt, an unnamed Medieval artist, an unnamed photographer, Joseph Wright of Derby and David Teniers the Younger for the artwork.


Jill Schacter said...

Esme, I love the concept of your teaching journal. Journals are amazing tools for sharing wisdom and even for maintaining good health. Even though I've chose the subject of loss for my online diary, I don't do it for pity. I write for all of those who have experienced loss and who want to keep on living happily along side it. Research has proven that writing about your deepest feelings can improve your physical and emotional well-being.

Erika said...

I love these ideas. I wish that I had kept such a journal early in my teaching career. I have recently started an online journal of sorts as a record of my adventures in graduate school. So there are reflections on my life as a student and as a teacher. I think that I will use some of your starters as post ideas. Thanks!

Mrs. McClary said...

I have to do a weekly journal for student teaching. I've been using some of these ideas. Thanks!

miss.calcul8 said...

I did not have to do journals through student teaching but I'm kind of glad because it doesn't really compare at all to life since I've started teaching.

This is my first year and I have been writing weekly recaps at my blog

I also keep a notebook that is just for me where I write interactions with students, observations about them, and funny things.

MJP said...

I am just about to finish reading "Educating Esme." I started reading it yesterday and I can't put it down! I have laughed out loud, and thought about how I can 'borrow' some of your ideas. I believe at one point you write about the importance of teachers sharing their ideas, so I hope you don't mind if I do!

I am a student teacher who will graduate soon. It is a requirement that we keep a reflective journal. I keep two: one that my university gets to see, and one that is cheeky, sarcastic and just plain true. I think that is why I am enjoying your book so much - you say it like it is, and then some.

mollymaureen said...

Thank you for what you are so inspiring.....especially when I feel like I am the "worlds-suckiest-teacher-ever".....

Mary Jo said...

I'm so glad I linked here from Teaching Authors! And elated to read your ideas from a teacher's perspective. I teach creative writing workshops for middle grade through enrichment programs in my community and on my own. Since I'm not affiliated with a school, it can be very lonely (before and after workshops!) so I'm excited to learn about this online "community!"
I blog about my own writing and teaching experiences here: and have a blog for the young writers to gather here:

Mary Jo

ah03422 said...

I keep a journal of my daily trials and tribulations. I have been keeping one since I began teaching 16 years ago. It is imporant for me to remember the antics of the young children I teach each year. I need to start on journal about my educational experiences that I have encountered during my graduate school adventure. I am amazed at the way that graduate school is so different in an online setting than face to face. I miss seeing the enthusiasm from my professors with the online format. My graduate experience has been filled with lots of ups but also downs. We must be critical of ourselves before we criticize others. That is my life lesson for the day.