JITE v39n2 - At Issue - Reflective Journal Writing of Vocational Education Teachers during the Week of September 11, 2001: Confronting Personal and Professional Demands

Volume 39, Number 2
Winter 2002


Reflective Journal Writing of Vocational Education Teachers during the Week of September 11, 2001: Confronting Personal and Professional Demands

Janet Z. Burns
Georgia State University
Karen Schaefer
Georgia State University

People say they will never forget where they were when they heard the news on September 11, 2001. The events of September 11 had a deep impact on schools and children. The reverberations of the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States were felt instantly and spread quickly to our nation's classrooms. Teachers became the front line, armed with few experiences to draw on to respond to a tragedy of this scale. To help us remember and reflect, in this article we explore the teaching logs of 30 provisionally certified trade and industrial (T&I) and health occupations teachers to tell us what they were doing and feeling on that day.

Reflective Teaching

It has been long debated whether teaching is an art or a science. Many conclude that it is the artistry of the teacher coupled with the science of pedagogy that defines the craft. For a teacher to develop in both areas, the concept of reflective practice, introduced by Schon in 1987, has been embraced in many teacher education programs. Reflective practice has been described as an important process in improving performance in a specific discipline. It involves thoughtfully considering one's own experiences in applying knowledge to practice while being coached by professionals in the discipline (Schon, 1996). In the context of clinical supervision for teachers, reflection is used as a vehicle for developing professionally responsible teachers who are capable of analyzing their own performance, are open to change and assistance from others, and are self-directed in their own improvement activities (Pajak, 1993).

Reflective teaching can take a variety of forms and is incorporated into practice using a variety of methods at different levels. Problem solving activities, case studies, coaching, and reflective portfolios are some of the components included in the reflective teaching model. A major component of the model is journal writing, with some debate as to whether journaling should focus on situational or contextual reflection. For example, journals may include technical reflection, deliberate reflection, personal reflection, and critical reflection, among others. (Brookfield, 1995; Pultorak, 1993; Valli, 1997). Although the format of reflective journaling is debated in the literature, there does seem to be general agreement that the primary benefit of reflective practice for teachers is a deeper understanding of their own teaching style and, ultimately, greater effectiveness as a teacher. Other benefits commonly referred to in the literature include the validation of a teacher's ideals, the recognition of teaching as artistry, the questioning of ethical implications of practice, an increased openness to diversity, and the ability to question one's assumptions.

Incorporating Reflective Teaching into Vocational Instructor Practice

Vocational teachers are unique in that they typically are skilled experts in their content field before entering a teacher education program. However, they are similar to other teachers in the need to learn the teaching craft. Few teachers entering schools to teach T&I or health occupations in Georgia have pre-service teacher training. Since 1993, Georgia State University (GSU) has embraced a model that forms cohort groups of teachers who remain together for the year-long certification process. The group begins with intensive summer courses focusing on classroom and laboratory management, curriculum development, teaching methodologies, certification requirements, and other "survival skills." When teachers enter their classrooms in the fall semester they are enrolled in a year-long student teaching practicum.

The current cohort group at GSU is made up of 30 T&I and health occupations teachers who are provisionally certified and enrolled in the year-long alternative teacher certification program. Two are teaching at elementary schools, one at a middle school, and 27 at secondary schools. The vocational fields represented are computer technology courses (8 teachers); law enforcement/criminal justice (5 teachers); construction (4 teachers); cosmetology (3 teachers); automotive (3 teachers); graphic arts (2 teachers); hospitality (2 teachers); health occupations (2 teachers); and ornamental horticulture (1 teacher). Sixteen of the teachers are male and 14 are female.

The practicum is based on the reflective teaching model and includes observations, videotaping, group problem solving sessions, development of a portfolio, and journal writing, referred to as a teaching log. The students are encouraged to sit down once a week and write in their teaching logs. They are given a handout (Burns, 2001) including a set of questions based on Brookfield's (1995) suggestions for critical reflection, as noted in the Appendix. Some teachers approach the task enthusiastically, while others consider it quite challenging and even a burden at the beginning stages. Acknowledging some resistance to the process, no teacher has ever refused to write the journal, or to allow the instructor to read it and provide feedback.

Changing Course

For the past four years the reflective journals written by vocational teachers have been a major source of triangulated data (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) in an on-going research project being conducted at GSU. However, when the researchers sat down in early December, they never expected to read about the trauma, heartache, and emotion described by the teachers during the week of September 10, 2001. School leaders were advised to preserve normal routines to help provide a sense of stability for the children (Reid & Gerwertz, 2001), but it appears that the front line of "normalcy" for students became our nation's teachers.

While reading through the journals it became apparent that this was a story that needed to be told. This article was written as a tribute to a group of unsung heroes - America's teachers. Although the journals are only one data source collected solely from vocational education teachers, we suspect that these teachers' reflections could be generalized to academic teachers as well, and that they could encourage further research.

Moments Etched in Vocational Teachers' Memories and Written in Logs: Teaching in the Week that Included September 11, 2001

The comments in the journals clustered into several categories, with no predominant theme. We have organized the teachers' reflections into the following categories: coping with personal emotions, quandaries with administrators, focusing lessons, handling students' responses, lending a hand, and affirmation as a teacher.

Coping with Personal Emotions

On the morning on September 11, 2001, as terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, teachers found themselves in their classrooms when the news of the attacks reached them. Surrounded by students and in the midst of planned activities, there was little opportunity that morning for private grief. In their teaching journals, teachers wrote of their efforts to cope with their own personal shock and horror while they endeavored to maintain a professional mien in front of their students.

My greatest distress is the world's distress. The attack on America is sickening, despicable, cowardly, evil and absolutely unbelievable. Having worked on the 51st floor of Two World Trade Center (or the South Tower), I continue to visualize the inside of the building, including the mall underneath where I banked, the two elevators that carried me to work each day, the identification required to move within the building, my desk, the fabulous views of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Hudson River and the City, the brokerage floor, the executive conference room with the seamless "James Bond"- like conference table. This week not only did these thoughts and the sickening feeling of the thousands who probably perished haunt my daily thoughts, they also haunted my dreams. As a teacher, we have to provide some sense of normalcy for our kids, while at the same time encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings. This week it was difficult not to show all the emotion I felt. I never want to go through this kind of experience again. [computer technology teacher]

After the events of Tuesday, September 11, everything else paled in comparison. A lot of time was spent somewhat mourning with the students and teachers….That made such an impact, I do not remember anything else affecting me. The rest of the week was more of a numbing, go-through-the-motions kind of time. [computer technology teacher]

[The situation this week that caused me the greatest anxiety or distress was the] World Trade Center Bombing: dealing with students' emotions and worrying about my own family. [hospitality teacher]
…after the bombing, even though outside it looked the same, inside I felt almost numb and felt I had to put on a relaxed and assured face for the sake of the students. [health occupations teacher]

America suffered a great, unimaginable crisis this week. The terrorist attack took my breath away as I struggled along with everyone else to come to terms with such incredible evil in the hearts of fellow beings. A student came up to me and told me what had happened. I was in class at the time. I switched on the television, dumbstruck as to what was the appropriate thing to do at the time … By Friday evening, I was so mentally drained that I could barely stand. For the first time, I realized the enormous responsibility on the shoulders of any teacher. I went to bed, but awoke at 4:00 a.m., tossing and turning. That's when I finally wept for our country as I watched CNN. I finally had the chance to grieve. [computer technology teacher]

Quandaries with Administrators

Unprepared for the sudden, unforeseen attacks, teachers had to quickly devise their own methods of keeping themselves and their students informed about the unfolding disaster. Some teachers who searched for ways to keep abreast of the day's events and to reassure their anxious students discovered themselves at odds with school administrators. Several journal entries reflected the additional distress created by these conflicts.

…an administrator tapped on my door, looked in, noticed the television was on, then reprimanded me just outside my classroom door, telling me to shut off that television immediately. I didn't understand her reaction, though I apologized for evidently not following the correct protocol, whatever that was supposed to be. Until I spoke with her, I had no direction regarding that, and I was trying desperately to control the emotions in my classroom, including mine. I did the best I could under very unsure and troubling conditions. At any rate the principal finally called a meeting at the end of the day. She recognized the need to address students' questions, but not initiate discussions. Some teachers agreed with her, while others didn't. It is an enormous and impossible task to keep the outside world from affecting our children, since this is the Information Age. [computer technology teacher]

[The moment that caused me the greatest anxiety or distress was] when our principal sent word not to tell the students. Then he came on the intercom and emotionally informed them that a tragic event had occurred and he would talk to them later. The students asked me if I knew what it was and I had to decline telling them. I felt I had lied to them and I stress honesty so much. That bothered me greatly. [Of everything I did this week, what I would do differently is] request that our principal speak to the students as he had promised earlier on the intercom so they would continue to have ultimate trust in his word. [health occupations teacher]

Focusing Lessons

In the days immediately following September 11, teachers expressed in their journals their bewilderment and uncertainty as to how to refocus themselves and their students. Many felt unsure of the best way to handle the emotional fall-out of the terrorist attacks. Some teachers were able to direct lesson topics around the terrorism; others simply attempted to maintain a comforting and familiar structure in their classroom routine.

I could not think or do anything related to teaching or hardly anything else this week. I am glad most of my students were out this week taking the High School Graduation Test. [cosmetology teacher]

Our class watched over and over as the two planes hit the World Trade Center. Class could not go as normal, so we transitioned to a class discussion. We talked about what crimes were being committed against the U.S.A. and what agencies would investigate the attack. I should have switched to a Federal law enforcement study for the remainder of the week. There was an abundance of subject matter to discuss. Even though our thoughts were consumed with terrorism, I was able to get them back on track by Thursday. We resumed our normal operations with an occasional discussion about the attacks. [law enforcement/criminal justice teacher]

I was surprised that so many teachers played the breaking news of the terrorist attack in their rooms. The student body as a whole was kept updated on the developments. I did not allow the class to stop and discuss the terrorist attack on America. I probably should have allowed this to assist them in understanding it. [law enforcement/criminal justice teacher]

I chose not to initiate discussions, but to allow my students a forum disguised as the thought of the day, so that whatever the thought was, they had the chance to voice it in class. I maintained a strict routine that whole week to give my students security, and they seemed to appreciate that I was very disciplined in that we would follow our routines, no matter what else was happening out there in the world. There was at least one place they could come to that was familiar and predictable. [computer technology teacher]

Handling Students' Responses

Students turned to their teachers with their questions and fears concerning the terrorist attacks. Many teachers described in their journals the feelings of inadequacy as well as the sense of responsibility that overwhelmed them as they struggled to convey to their students the significance of the events and to search for some explanation for the seemingly senseless acts of violence.

Students were very concerned about the events of September 11th. The students came into 2nd period wanting to watch the news. I was not prepared to answer all the questions they had. I felt I was not totally in control; I could not answer all the questions because of lack of knowledge. All I could do was answer, "I don't know why." I really need to be better informed on current affairs. I felt like I needed to answer their questions, but could only answer with my opinion. The days that followed the attack, students were not ready to learn. They were more focused on the current events of the day. Some seniors were asking if I thought they were going to get drafted. [automotive teacher]

I was very disappointed in some of my students who thought it would be OK to sleep while terrorists were attacking our country. I strongly voiced my disapproval of their behavior. That's putting it lightly. Needless to say, they did not get to go to sleep. [law enforcement/criminal justice teacher]

I pounced on a student for making an off-color remark during the attack. [construction teacher]

[The moment this week when I felt most affirmed as a teacher was] while I was trying to explain to an autistic student all the events that went into the world trade center bombing. [hospitality teacher]

My most difficult moment came after the principal finally addressed the school in an announcement to the faculty, staff and students regarding America's crisis….Tears were in my eyes when my students arrived, and when one of them came to me and said, "Ms.G., will we be going to war and will we die?" I immediately asked the student to take his seat, that I would address his questions in a moment, but that he needed to get started on the assigned task. I walked into my lab to compose myself. I then returned to my students, made a brief speech about the week's events, basically telling them that as a country, we've faced adversity before, and because we are united, we got through those tough times, and because we are united, we will get through this terrible time also. I mentioned those people donating blood, that the lines are so long that people are waiting for hours to donate their blood. People are giving money to the relief fund. The rescue workers are searching tirelessly for people's loved ones. Whatever happens, we will get through it, because we are united, working together to help each other, and that is why we are called The United States. Then I said, justice will have to come for those who did us wrong, but hoping for war isn't the answer, because in any war, both sides lose innocent lives. Let's just hope that justice will be served without additional innocent lives lost. That seemed to satisfy my students, and so they began their work for the day. [computer technology teacher]

[The situation that caused me the greatest anxiety or distress was] trying to comfort a student whose uncle works at the Pentagon. It was Friday before she found out he was all right. Being a counselor does not bother me. I have had training in psychiatric nursing. The bothersome aspect was really the fact that the Pentagon was a successful target of terrorism. As you know, stressed students are not focused and they don't learn. Learning doesn't have an on-off switch. [health occupations teacher]

Lending a Hand

In order to help the school community come to grips with the disaster, many teachers encouraged their students to convey their sympathy to families of victims and to participate in recovery projects. Several teachers documented in their journals the sense of pride and patriotism spawned by these efforts.

This week was Acts of Kindness Week, so my students wrote letters and cards to those who volunteered, were in the hospital, and to the children in the Washington, DC and New York areas as a result of our tragedy. Many of them really touched me! It gave me insight to what our children are thinking and feeling during this tragedy America is facing. I feel really proud of many of my students and their heartfelt thoughts. [computer technology teacher]

[The moment this week when I felt most affirmed as a teacher was] when [I had] my idea about raising money for the Red Cross Disaster Relief and having a Patriotism Dress Day at our school. The students raised $500! On Friday 85 - 90% of the school wore red, white, and blue. [This week I felt proudest of] raising money for the Red Cross and encouraging patriotism in the students. Why? If people can focus on doing something positive for others, they tend to see less to complain about. This, in turn, makes them better people. Better people make better citizens. Better citizens make better healthcare workers. [health occupations teacher]

[This week I felt proud] to be able to continue teaching and then allowing students to make posters Friday to be displayed in our community about patriotism and love of country. [The event that made me unexpectedly happy was] the display of patriotism by everyone and the students' desire to go on with school in respect for those who died and to make sure the terrorists did not disrupt our lives. [health occupations teacher]

Affirmation as a Teacher

The events of September 11 presented teachers with new and troubling responsibilities. Yet in spite of, or perhaps due to, the challenges surrounding dealing with the terrorist attacks, many teachers gained an enriched sense of professionalism and competence. In their journals, these teachers recorded the feelings of growth and affirmation that they acquired through surmounting the difficulties the terrorist attacks manifested in their classrooms.

[This week I felt proudest] when one of my students told me after class, "Thanks." I believe it was for getting away from teaching automotive and letting the students express their views and question on the events that happened. [automotive teacher]

[This week I felt proudest of] the calming effect I had on the students during the attack. We talked things out. [I felt affirmed as a teacher when I] made time for students and listened to their cares and concerns. [If I could do something differently I would] not take sarcastic comments from students too seriously. I am changing my perspective daily. I try to remember these are just kids. [construction teacher]

Considering the world tragedy this week, I think I did a pretty good job teaching. I really cannot think of what I would change [in my teaching] this week. [computer technology teacher]

[The event this week that made me unexpectedly happy was] seeing how everyone joined together for the support of America. [hospitality teacher]

[The event this week that made me feel most affirmed as a teacher was] how I handled the news of the bombing of the areas around the U.S. and allowed the students to cope in a positive way. [health occupations teacher]

This week I had a good rapport with the students. In a time when all are sad and apprehensive about the future, I believe this will aid in their trust in me as their teacher and in having an overall effective classroom. [computer technology teacher]

The spontaneous discussion on the terrorist attack in first period actually provided a teachable moment. I am proud that I deviated from my lesson plan and capitalized on the topic many students were concerned about. [law enforcement/criminal justice teacher]

Final Thoughts

When journaling was assigned at the beginning of the 2001 Fall semester, no one realized that the importance of this reflective activity would be heightened by the world events that entered the classroom. What began as standard reflections on teaching practice gave way to unique expressions of personal grief and attempts to meet professional demands in uncharted territory.

An unsolicited note from an automotive instructor poignantly illustrates the benefit of reflective practice:

At first, I really hated to sit down and place the week's events in my teacher's log. After a period of time I would sit down and review the log, and I could see where more planning was needed to add [course] material. Or the way in which the material was presented was wrong, or could be improved upon. I also learned that my own emotions played a large role in how my classes went for the week. This [reflective log] can also be used as road map to show me, the instructor, if I am going in the right direction. It also allows me to track down problems-whether it is with a student or with an administrator. I now feel that it is important enough to continue the log, where I as an instructor can reflect back and watch myself grow as a professional. Thanks.


Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Burns, J.Z. (2001). Teaching practicum in technology, career-prep. Unpublished manuscript, Georgia State University.

Lincoln, Y., & Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Myers, I. B., & Myers, P. B. (1980). Gifts differing. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologist's Press.

Pajak, E. (1993). Approaches to clinical supervision: Alternatives for improving instruction. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Pultorak, E. G. (1993). Reflective thought in novice teachers. Journal of Teacher Education, 44 (4), 288-295.

Reid, K. S., & Gewertz, C. (2001, September 19). As crisis unfolds, educators balance intricate demands. Education Week [on-line]. Available: http://www.edweek.org/ew/newstory.cfm?slug=03impact.h21.

Schon, D. A. (1996). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Valli, L. (1997). Listening to other voices: A description of teacher reflection in the United States. Peabody Journal of Education, 72 (1), 67-88.

Burns is an Associate Professor and Schaefer is an Instructor in the Department of Middle Secondary Education and Instructional Technology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA. Burns can be reached at: mstjlb@langate.gsu.edu

Tracy Gilmore