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  • Writer's pictureSteve Watts

Decluttering our Minds: The challenge of returning to school and work …

‘Journaling has provided me with an excellent tool to declutter my mind, get things “out there” because somehow to do that I can put an order to things and they suddenly don’t feel as overwhelming.’


September 2020 sees the return of pupils to school, students to university and workers back to their places of work. There is, understandably, a great deal of apprehension after over five months of home schooling, working from home and summer vacations. The Government has spent a considerable amount of time both encouraging us to return to work and study, as well as reassuring us that it is safe to do so (Newcastle Journal 7th September 2020).

It is clear that organisations have spent the past five months re-thinking their working practices as they evaluate the impact of Covid-19. As I write this there are both winners, with Amazon announcing an extra 7000 jobs to be created, as well as losers, with Costa talking about the loss of 1650 jobs. There is much speculation about how work (New Statesman 10th September 2020), as well as education (Times Educational Supplement 11th September 2020), will look in the future. The country is also facing a worrying surge in infection rates (New Scientist 11th September 2020) which is slowing the return to work and causing universities to think about how they will deliver their courses.

It is not just organisations that have been learning from the experiences of the past five months. Individuals are also taking stock and reflecting on the steep learning curve they have experienced during the lock down. For those who have kept a journal during this period, then they have a record of the daily struggles they encountered in March and April as they got to grips with the ‘new normal’ as it has been termed.

In my blogs during this period I have featured people from a variety of contexts who have shared excerpts from their journals. One such person was Jennifer (not her real name) who contributed to several blogs during the early days of the lock down period (13th April, 18th April and 28th April). Jennifer has continued to journal, more recently using it as a tool to help her make sense of the past, reflect on her successes and to move forward with greater confidence. As we come out of lock down, her son has returned to school, whilst Jennifer plans to go back to the office one day a week on a rota basis. Jennifer has shared further extracts from her journal so that we can compare and contrast her early journal entries of home schooling and home working at the start of lock down with the present moment.

‘We are now at the end of the official School summer holidays and like many other parents I have received extensive information / risk assessments for a safe return of all pupils to school. Trying to digest this information, not to mention get to grips with the constant updates, is quite some task. It is of course no surprise to read that pupils will need to remain at home should they display any of the Covid-19 symptoms. However, what stands out for me alongside this, is that in such cases, assuming pupils are not too poorly, there is the expectation that they will continue with home schooling during their absence.

On the one hand, I fully understand and agree that pupils have missed out on an awful lot of classroom-led teaching and to miss further sessions or have interruptions in their learning will have a negative impact. As we head into the winter months it is inevitable that children will at some point develop such symptoms. So how I do feel about the prospect of continuing home schooling?’

In this extract Jennifer is using her journal to express her anxieties and apprehensions in the same way that Julia Cameron advises us to do when writing our ‘morning pages’ (Cameron, 1992, The Artist’s Way). One of the key writing processes involved in journaling is the realisation through writing that there is a way forward, there are positive take-aways from using our journal to express our deepest thoughts and fears. Jennifer goes on to show us how in reflecting back she recognised just how far she had come and the great successes she had achieved.

‘My initial response is dread, all of the reminders of how so very hard the period between March and July was come rushing back to mind. Indeed, my own work is making plans to phase us back into the office during September. But then I stopped and thought. Perhaps reflecting back on the lockdown may just help me to identify how far I have come over the past 5 months, remind me of the positive outcomes; what worked and what didn’t and with that provide the strength to build upon these and pave the way forward.

Journaling has provided me with an excellent tool to declutter my mind, get things “out there” because somehow to do that I can put an order to things and they suddenly don’t feel as overwhelming. I started to journal at the beginning of lockdown to help with the sudden change of working from home, home schooling and the uncertainty of not knowing how or when this will all end. I decided to re-read these journal entries, not to torture myself on how difficult this time was but rather to identify what worked and what didn’t, ie to learn from the experience.

Wow! I make no exaggeration when I use the word “wow!” since the first observation I made when looking back was the huge amount I have had to cope with during these months, but not only that, I adjusted, coped and have to say, the measures I put in place worked! But just how did I achieve this? It has been very much a journey of trial and error, but “organised”, “recognition” and “acceptance” certainly also played their parts.’

Jennifer began this current journal entry with the daunting feelings of possibly having to do it all again, which is one of the purposes of a journal, to confide our deepest fears and anxieties. In doing this, however, Jennifer comes out stronger and more positive as she realises that she overcame the initial difficulties of simultaneously home schooling and home working – she has a blue print, based on experience and success, that she can invoke, should she end up in this situation again in the months ahead.

‘I can see now that I had to recognise the need to be organised, to separate the different roles I was playing in order to be able to give the right amount of attention to each but more than that I needed to be realistic. This took time and a great deal of acceptance all of which were only achievable by using a journal.

Making regular journal entries allowed me to visualise more clearly the position I was in and the challenges I was being presented with. Looking back over my entries I can see the difficult situation I was in, the frustrations and the anxieties. I can also follow how I was able to tackle the challenges bit by bit and revisit where necessary. It was a gradual process and I did need to continue to make simple changes; the most successful being to separate my different roles. With this, my identity returned and I could put the right focus in the right places. I recognise that the situation going forward will be different to that of the lockdown and this is where I have realised that to reflect back on my journals isn’t to find the answers. Instead it has reminded me of the need to understand the ever-changing demands that will be made upon us and recognise that the way forward is to be realistic and to accept that there may be a need to adapt my approach from time to time.’

It is clear from this entry Jennifer has used her journals to help her recognise the need to be flexible and adaptable. Her journal entries record a journey, one where she has wrestled with the challenges confronting her and emerged more confident about her ability to find a way through the uncertainties of the future. She has captured the watch words that emerge from her writing and these are her sign-posts for the future - organised, recognition and acceptance. Jennifer is right any future challenges will not be the same as she was presented with in the Spring and Summer of 2020, but she realises through reflecting in her journal that she does now possess the necessary ‘tools’ to help her meet the future with confidence – one of those tools is her journal.

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