She began teaching in the impoverished area of Ginger Ridge in St Catherine in 1971, later at Penwood, and the poems she began writing at this time reflect her distress and anger at what she saw. In addition to teaching, she worked in the Publications Unit of the Ministry of Education. Her first slim collection of poems, Actors in the Arena, was published by Savacou in 1977. A second pamphlet, Under the Sun, was published by The New Voices in Trinidad in 1988.
In addition to poetry Jean Goulbourne has written both a novel, Excavation (Peepal Tree, 1997), which draws on her background of studying history, and an as yet unpublished collection of short stories which won the 1993 Jamaica prize. She was the recipient of a James Michener Fellowship and an honorary fellowship at the Iowa Institute of Writing Programme.
In recent years she has returned to her beginnings to teach and live in Cross Keys, Manchester.