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You can’t mark everything!

June 7, 2014

Although I’ve been teaching high school for over a decade, I continue to struggle with the ever growing pile of work that seems to need marking and grading. And I know I’m not the only teacher dealing with this. Workaholism is an illness and I’ve decided it’s time to take this bull by the horns.  I’m asking around, my dear reader, and I’d appreciate any insight you have.

More than ever lately I want to know the strategies other teachers have found to help deal with all the marking. I’m turning to the power of the intertubes and harnessing this push button publishing.   If you teach, what are your strategies to manage the workload outside of class time?  And anyone who seems to be always bringing work home to do after hours, what are your tips and suggestions?  Where one little gem of an idea may not be enough on it’s own, just imagine the fortune of ideas we could collect together.

It can be a real problem to find the right “work vs life” balance. If you focus on work too much, your home life becomes neglected. It starts with neglecting your personal stuff, mess, overdue bills and so on.  Unchecked it can eventually get really ugly with a malfunctioning car, leaking roof or broken marriage.

The symptoms of this disease are obvious.  We drag the pile home, and drag it back to work, day after day in hopes of getting some more marking done.  It’s like a ball and chain which weighs you down every hour of every day of the year except perhaps for two months. This endless chore can even be depressing if it gets to you enough.  Working more is as much the illness as it is not the solution.

The routine problem: 

I’ll paint an ugly little picture that a few teachers might relate to.  Any spare time at 7am before students arrive is typically spent preparing for the next class.  There’s always something needing to be done, whether it’s designing a rubric, writing a handout, a power point, copying class lists or any other billion things to do. When they walk in to class, you’re teaching and managing 30 children until they leave.  Then there’s those extra tasks teachers are asked to do when working at a school (that has little to do with teaching your classes).   Then there’s the sorting, cleaning, organizing and you get the general idea…  Hey is it 5:30 pm already?  You grab the marking pile and head for home.

And doesn’t end there. Commuting in traffic takes another hour. You get some dinner, spend a few minutes time with family.  You’ve perhaps an hour before bedtime, so  you try to get some work done but you get through only 6 papers because you’re really tired.  84 more to go.  And you know that by the Friday due date  about 90 new assignments will be turned in by the students in each of your courses.   Does this sound familiar at all?

Admit defeat:

I sometimes feel like I’m just fighting to survive.  And so I spend too much time feeling bad about always been behind in my marking. As soon as I return one marked assignment, some students will ask about the other assignments that are not returned yet, and for another mark update.  In “The Art of War” Sun Tzu writes, “Know your enemy but not yourself, wallow in defeat every time.” It’s important to really know your weaknesses and limitations as a person.   I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realize the truth that you can’t mark everything.  In my training and through my career, we whine about all the marking, but try to slog our way through.  The idea that not everything that the students do gets graded is hardly ever talked about. Perhaps we’re afraid we won’t win teacher of the year award if anyone finds out.  We’re worried someone might think we suck at our job.

A major part of teaching is the class time dedicated to giving the students activities to do where they will use their knowledge and apply the lesson.   Teachers give students assignments, but sometimes it’s for practice, and sometimes for evaluation.  And pretty much any sane person has no problem with this.  But if students find out that the assigned task isn’t being graded, most of them won’t bother to do the assigned task for learning.  So the game teachers play is to give students the impression that everything they do will affect their mark. But clearly something isn’t working smoothly in my approach right now, when like so many other teachers, I know I’m not keeping up with all the piles of assignments turned in.

I’m not alone in this struggle:

The phrase was so clear to me this week I googled it.  Chris Lehmann writes, in his “Letter To a Young Teacher”, that it takes longer than 3 or four years of teaching to learn that you can’t mark everything.  I guess it took me three times longer than this to really comprehend.  It was nice to read what other teachers think about this.  KarenB shared her problem:

I really need to find out how to leave some of my work at school. I have been bringing home SO much work and I am beginning to miss my own children. They are in high school and will be gone before I know it.

Again a 25 year veteran of the profession replies with the wisdom that you simply just can’t mark everything.  Now I’m just starting to consider this idea carefully.

Trying a different approach. 

Currently I think that my students always look for a mark on any work returned.  Maybe this is because my students have learned to expect this? Is it even possible that I could return work and my students would feel fine about not receiving a grade for it? In her blog Embro Educated, Deanna Kirwin shares her experience:

“I can’t collect everything and I certainly can’t mark everything. This is where I dabbled with the idea of the student’s perceptions of marks. When I returned there work rarely did they look for a mark. They looked for evidence that I had read through their work. That  I took the time to appreciate the work that they had put in during the period even if it was completing a worksheet together as a class or working on an in class activity and making a reflection on their learning. Through the use of comments, feedback, praise and guidelines for improvement I had found that balance.”

Kenney Peiper is a 14 year veteran English teacher at a Secondary School in Scotland. In his blog post “Marking is feedback is differentiation is planning“, he raises the question about marking everything and shares his decision to make a complete change in his approach:

I’ve tried to completely change my approach to marking. Reading about what better teachers than me do successfully  …  has turned my approach around and I love it … On closer inspection I was going for an outcome over process strategy. I spent too long marking, correcting, commenting on what became summative pieces of writing which were rarely used to set next steps. Class jotters were often neglected as I focused on the nice, final product, concerned that inspection, parents, management team would be more concerned with those. So, if I changed from outcome to process – which I should have been doing all along – what would happen?


A Secret for Success:

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

Sun Tzu suggests that to be victorious I need to ensure the odds will be in my favour, before the fight, and before I even step into the ring.  This is perhaps where a little planning in advance comes in.   Perhaps, by being proactive and thinking ahead, we can follow better strategies for the win.  Unless someone can help me understand how it works, I don’t think I can announce tomorrow that  “this weeks work will not be collected and not be marked.”  But maybe it’s time I stop trying to motivate students to do the work using the threat of marks?  What if I stop announcing to the class,  “this will be marked” or “hand it in on time or you will lose marks”?  Students who finish the task will next be handing it in to me, and assuming I will grade it.  They’re accustomed to this routine.

The bottom line:

I need to enter marks and their marks are reported.  In our high school the administration and parents expect to have a print out of all the grades for the semester that contribute to their overall grade.  I need about two dozen grades to be recorded for each student by the end of the semester, and every entry can count for about 3 to 7% of the student’s final overall mark.  Students will need to repeat the course if I enter a final mark under 50%.  And there’s also almost always a parent and student who complains about the final mark and demands to see a print out of all their marks.

I know there’s a few of us out there struggling to find the right balance somehow.  Have you found any ways to mark faster?  Have you found any ways to cut back on the marking load? It doesn’t matter how trivial of a strategy please share.  I hope together we can collect the whole set.



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