ARC Cohort 2022

Reimagining the Diary

6th October 2022

We chat with Dr Lucy Kelly from the University of Bristol about Reimagining the Diary, a teacher wellbeing project offering a bespoke Diary Toolkit alongside wellbeing CPD sessions. This project is part of the ARC 2022 Cohort.

Q: What is your academic background and what are you currently working on?
My name is Lucy Kelly and I work at the University of Bristol. I’m an Associate Professor in Education and I predominantly work on the PGCE English course, so I train new English teachers, which is wonderful. I also supervise doctoral students and my main interest is around teacher wellbeing. I lead the ‘Reimagining the Diary’ project which focuses on building a community of like-minded teachers, where they’re given the space to reflect in our wellbeing CPD slots, as well as through our bespoke Diary Toolkit. These aspects help teachers better cope with mental health, stress and burnout, which will help to improve retention and recruitment rates.

The Diary Toolkit covers everything from a reflective diary, to bookmarks, a tactile spinner and support moving from the busy world of teaching into a more reflective space. I have worked with 450 educators to date and we’re now into phase 8 of the project, where we’re testing out a student version of the Diary Toolkit with 250 year 12s at a school in Cheltenham. The reason for this is because, as Dr Sue Roffey (2012) notes, teacher wellbeing and student wellbeing being two sides of the same coin: you can’t have one without the other. 

Q: How did you come up with your venture idea? Why did you decide to focus on this specific idea?
I was working with a colleague in the History department. She had an interest in oral histories and diary-keeping, and I had an interest in diaries and the positive impact they could  have on your wellbeing. I have always kept diaries, and I come from a literature background. Also, on the English PGCE, we ask our trainee teachers to use reflective journals as a way to document their ongoing progress across the course. Anyway, me and my colleague joined forces to think about how diaries might be used for busy professionals.

Our Diary Toolkit is in its third iteration. When we were in our initial phases, we found that there is no such thing as the perfect diary. There is no one size fits all approach, because there is no one size fits all human! What we came up with was a smorgasbord of different reflective practices that people could pick and choose from and alter depending on their wellbeing needs at the time. It uses reflective practice in the broadest sense as well. We wanted to reimagine the diary beyond just writing and open it up to include other modes, such as visual and audio. We have 21 main activities, including storyboarding, doodling, sketchnoting, sound recording, weather tracking, scrapbooking, and positive affirmations. This variety and multimodal approach is deliberate because people will approach diary keeping in different ways so we wanted there to be something for everyone. If we can unpick the diary from writing, then it opens it up and becomes more inclusive. Additionally, if you only use writing, then your understanding of yourself and your wellbeing needs will be limited. The more modes or approaches you use in the diary, the better you get to know yourself.

Through our work with teachers, we have also found that to suddenly go from caregiving, where you are spinning multiple plates all-day every day, to being told that you need to stop immediately to complete your diary entry for the day, can be really hard. What we have developed is a structured approach to reflection that has three phases to it. The first phase is a transition activity that actually helps teachers move from that caregiving place to the caretaking one; it acts as a bridge between the worlds of home and work and supports teachers in thinking about themselves and their own needs. These transition activities are short five minute practices. To choose the activity, you spin our lovely wooden spinner – or use the digital version on our website – and see where it lands. Our 12 transition activities include everything from making a cup of tea and drinking it mindfully, to singing and dancing to your favourite songs or going outside. It’s not about the outcome; it’s just about that process. This activity allows you to draw a line in the sand between your different roles.

The next part is the main activity and, again, we have given clear instructions, prompts and templates for each of the activities. This is because our feedback shows that teachers make thousands of decisions every day, so to then be faced with a blank page in your diary can be quite intimidating and off-putting for some teachers. We have very much made the Diary Toolkit – and the process of keeping it – as easy as possible. The final stage is what we call ‘reflect’, and the purpose of this phase is to encourage teachers to take a step back and consider what they’d like to do with their entry. Would they like to keep it, share it or destroy it? The reason we have this element is because if you know that you’re the only person using and seeing that diary, then it helps you to let go of the judgement and expectation around diary-keeping, which is one of the main limiting factors we found. Instead, teachers can feel liberated by the sense of ‘letting go’ and use the diary in a way that works for them and their wellbeing. This will also help to make the diary a habit because you’re not ‘shoulding’ on yourself; instead, you find it an enjoyable process you look forward to.

We have had really good feedback on the project. 100% of our participants said they would recommend our Diary Toolkit to other educators. Our main findings are that it offers the space for catharsis and celebration, and an opportunity to gain perspective. Time and motivation are the biggest limiting factors, but that is where the structured approach can really help. After a teacher has tried everything in the toolkit once, they then customise it to their own wellbeing needs based on those activities that resonated with them the most. 

Alongside the Diary Toolkit, we also have monthly wellbeing CPD sessions, which we’ve run since 2020.  The CPD slots are led by experts in the teacher wellbeing field, and the aim is for our main speaker to share their expertise, tips and strategies which participants can then take into their own personal and professional lives. The sessions include participants from across the country, with differing levels of expertise and experience. Our aim is to create a community around wellbeing, where people know that they’re not the only ones working on this. We are all trying to look after ourselves as well as looking after other people, so the CPD sessions encourage us to be each other’s wellbeing advocates. The feedback on the CPD slots has been wonderful: 89% of participants found being part of a wellbeing community helpful. 

Q: What does your venture aim to achieve and how does it tackle the issue? 
We know that we, as a teaching profession, are facing a recruitment and retention crisis but, as I’ve written about previously, I also firmly believe that we’re facing a wellbeing crisis. I think this crisis has been exacerbated by Covid-19 and the impact it’s had on teacher and student mental health. What I’m really interested in is how we can make wellbeing small, sustainable, simple and bespoke to the individual using it, rather than something that’s just a tick box activity on an inset day. This is about making wellbeing holistic and integrating it into every teacher’s daily life. But it’s also about making wellbeing part of the school’s ethos. We talk a lot about wellbeing and say, “oh, you need to top up your wellbeing cup”, and “you need to put your own oxygen mask on first”. But, actually, wellbeing can become a throwaway, empty term because, if we stop to think about what wellbeing means to us, on a personal level, then it can be very difficult to articulate. Your version of wellbeing, and your definition of wellbeing, might be different to mine, and that’s absolutely fine.

A diary gives you a space to think about what wellbeing means to you personally and then to consider what you need. What might your wellbeing toolkit look like? How can you use it so that you flourish inside and outside the classroom? These are questions we need to return to in an ongoing way because there are ebbs and flows to wellbeing – it will change. But, as well as offering a space for catharsis, it’s also important to celebrate the progress every teacher has made on their personal and professional journey and, again, this is where a diary helps. Teachers do a really good job and a diary offers a physical reminder of this; it helps them zoom out from the black dot on the white page where they fixate on what they didn’t do, to seeing all the white space and everything they did do. In my opinion, if we can prioritise teacher wellbeing – and this project may be a small step towards that – then, hopefully, we can change some of the results around retention and recruitment, whilst also reducing burnout and helping teachers have fewer sickness days. Teachers need the space to see that they are the biggest resource in the classroom so, in order to invest in others, they must invest in themselves.  

Q: How is the ARC Accelerator supporting you in bringing your venture to life? 
What’s been really good about the ARC Accelerator programme is that it’s helped me to actually think about the commercialisation and future direction of the project. This is completely out of my comfort zone, if I’m being honest. Business is not my forte, but it’s been really interesting to consider this project as a social enterprise and venture. This project is a bit different to others because we already have a product and are into our eighth phase; however, it’s made me reflect on how I can keep the project going in a sustainable way, and what this might look like in practice.

This programme has given me the time and space to actually put ideas down on the page and to pull the project apart in the best possible way. It’s made me question. I’ve asked myself: what might it look like if we want to take this project into a school partnership? How much would it cost them to pay for the Diary Toolkit? Would we have different versions available? And what might they look like? How might we advertise the project? How might we expand the team? And how can the project help in terms of retention and recruitment, because if people are using the project, does that mean they are taking fewer sick days? The ARC Accelerator programme has really made me look at the project in a different way, rather than just coming at it from a researcher perspective. 

Q: What has been the most useful part of the ARC programme so far? 
Many of the workshops have been helpful, as well as meetings with Roger where I’ve really had to sell the project’s uniqueness and the gap it fills. Even putting together a verbal business card and preparing for the ARC pitch have been really developmental. Preparing the ARC pitch is like no other presentation I’ve put together before; however, the process has helped to crystallise the project and what it’s about in a way I wasn’t really clear of before. Finally, input from my TTO and other TTOs has been great – even if it’s just them telling you it’s a really good project! It’s the validation to make you think you have got something special.  

Q: What have you learned through the programme that you will bring back to your work or research?  Is it the look through a commercialisation lens?
A: Definitely, because that wasn’t something I had necessarily thought about before. Being an academic, my go-to is through a research lens and, whilst this is still very important, I’m now also thinking about the commercialisation of the project and what this might look like in practice.   

Q: Where can we go to learn more?
My email address is I’m also on Twitter and can be found at @drlucykelly.


Photo credit: Stand+Stare