How creative journaling can empower teachers to take back their time

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 (Courtesy of ISTE)

If you’re shopping for a teacher planner, the options are plentiful. Coil-bound or binder rings. Notebook-sized, pocket-sized or in-between. Solid covers, patterned covers. Customizable layouts. Sections for lesson planning and prompts for goal-setting. Teacher and author Nichole Carter has tried many of these variations. But with each purchase, she found herself in a cycle. “I'd start using it, and then it didn't fit my needs and I'd stop using it. And then I'd feel guilty that I spent money on something. I'd go back, but I'd have all these blank pages from the week or the month when I had put it down.”

Carter disrupted the cycle when she abandoned pre-made planners altogether and started working from a blank journal. Now she designs pages based on what makes sense for her current tasks, which can change throughout the year. Some weeks it might be a daily calendar of appointments. Other times it’s a to-do list and an inspirational quote. Periodically, she devotes pages to bigger picture goal-setting and reflections. The change has helped Carter prioritize her tasks, focus her time and set boundaries between work and personal life. It’s also provided a creative outlet and way to relax.

Carter’s approach evolved from her forays into sketchnoting and bullet journaling. In her book, Creative Journaling for Teachers, Carter shares tools and practical prompts for teachers who want to bring a bit of creativity and moments of reflection to how they organize their work. And whether they start from blank notebooks or pre-made planners, she hopes these strategies will help teachers gain a feeling of time affluence amid a stressful, demanding career.

Scheduling beyond class

Teachers have been trying to manage full plates for a long time. But the COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously increased the pressure and prompted educators to reflect on their own self-care practices, Carter said. Like many teachers, she used to feel overwhelmed about how to get everything done. One of the creative journaling strategies that has helped her is time blocking. That means planning the day in chunks of time dedicated to a specific task or type of tasks, rather than simply tackling a to-do list in random order whenever a moment allows. Schools already use time blocking for student schedules, but teachers often don’t approach their non-instructional time this way, Carter said. In her book, she recommends looking at daily tasks, grouping them together and then slotting them into blocks with realistic estimates about the time they will take. She also suggests scheduling discrete blocks of time for less productive habits, such as social media or online shopping instead of letting them creep into every spare moment.

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Using these methods, teachers can better prioritize the tasks they tackle in limited prep time or before and after students arrive. Carter said the technique also makes it easier to face daunting tasks. There’s a big difference between staring at a stack of essays and committing to half an hour of grading, for example. “I look at a big project and I drag my heels,” she said. “But if I block out a time to just do as much as I can for 30 minutes, I still feel productive. I still get that dopamine hit.”

Carter knows that teachers aren’t always in charge of their time, even in prep periods. Students may need extra help, parents may call, and staff shortages may mean they’re helping out in another classroom. In her experience, though, the investment in being intentional about the parts of the day she can control paid off. Her increased productivity and heightened awareness of what she accomplished each day allowed her to leave school at school and focus on parenting while at home. “When we can take a step back and maybe have a better understanding of systems and strategies and time permanence for ourselves, we can take that time back,” she said.

Finding what works for you

On Saturday or Sunday nights, Carter cozies up with a cart of paints and markers, considers the week ahead and designs her next journal pages. The ritual has become a self-care practice. “[M]y brain has a chance to calm down, my blood pressure lowers, and I have managed to spend a little bit of time away from the screen,” she writes.

In her book and on Instagram, photos of Carter's journals show the many creative banners, lettering and accents she employs throughout her pages. The artistry sometimes intimidates other teachers, she said, but she encourages not to focus on perfection. She has developed her style over several years, pulling inspiration from bullet journal enthusiasts and sketchnote artists on social media. Plus, the end product in her photos isn’t where she begins. “I'll start with a very minimalistic design and then come back on a Sunday night as I'm watching TV and add some flourishes, some doodles and drawings and stickers and stuff and make it look very pretty,” she said.

Teachers can reap the benefits of time management and mental decluttering even without those extra touches. “You can literally grab a spiral notebook off your back shelf and a pen and start and find something that might work for you,” Carter said. “The more it speaks to you, the more likely you are to come back to it.”