Monday, March 4, 2013

Surviving end-of-term grading

This weekend, I was once again surrounded by stacks of final essays and final exams waiting to be graded. In my mind, anxious students held their breath as they waited to see what the averages would be. What did I do, in my teacherly wisdom, in the midst of such palpable tension? I took the day off.

Taking the day off is good and healthy. It's also a bit like eating a lovely meal out the night before surgery; the knowledge of what's coming taints even the most perfect slice of cheesecake. So though Saturday was fun and relaxed, I knew all the while that Sunday would be swallowed up. Frankly, I was dreading it.

Teaching is an amazing thing. I'm privileged to be given a classroom of students. I'm extremely proud to tell people about my occupation. But ask most anyone who teaches, and they'll tell you grading is the least fun part of the job, especially when it comes to grading essays. This link leads to an article that describes some of the reasons for that dread. It's not only that stuff, though. It's that I really read the essays and I care if the students have learned anything, whether they care or not. When I'm grading and realize I care and they clearly don't, I find myself swearing a lot and eating unhealthy amounts of potatoes and chocolate to cope.

Many teachers have discovered that a balance and rewards system works best to get us through those tough days of grading. We've all got our own slant, but it comes down to working a bit, then giving yourself planned treats in reward for completing a task. Not only does this fill a hard day with nice moments, but it actually makes me more fair and balanced as I grade. I suspect this approach can work with any job or with life in general or especially for full-time stay-at-home moms if they've got the option.

Here's an example of one of my best attempts:

Yesterday was a successfully balanced work/reward day even though it got off to a slow start, beginning with sleeping in followed by eggs and beans lovingly prepared by my hubby. I was all set to take a bath and get to work when a bird got stuck in the screened porch and, in trying to escape, squeezed itself into a hole in the ceiling and stopped moving. I made a sad noise, which prompted a rescue mission involving wood needing to be pried from the ceiling and therefore Jonathan needing to put his shoes on. Fortunately the birdy wriggled back out of the hole just before a crowbar was retrieved from the garage, and it chirped away out the open door happily ever after.

With the bird saved and no more holy missions presenting themselves, I finally had a hot bath and gave in to the inevitable by setting myself up at the kitchen table with three stacks of papers and the sun shining in to encourage me. Thankfully, the first batch of essays was done in just two hours. Much faster than I'd expected! Reward #1: a chilly but pleasant walk downtown with hubby and doggy.

Invigorated by our walk, though now slightly reluctant having been temporarily free in the out of doors, I got back to work on the second batch of essays. This set was more complicated. The grading was trickier, bonus points needed to be added, and the gradebook required special notes, so the pile took three hours to finish. The nice surprise was that the essays were really well done, a fact that can make even the biggest stack of papers enjoyable. When I finished, I got reward #2: a fingernail painting session with Jonathan. Not bad for his first time!

Things could have gone downhill after that because I got distracted by a fun family video chat and the prospect of a delicious pasta meal by Jonathan, but I somehow buckled down, yummy spicy tomato smells filling the air, and started chipping away at the third and final and most complicated stack. It's probably good I had to stop halfway through to eat. Dinner was fab, and the break gave me time to vent about my own teacherly shortcomings and the issues I was having with the essays. (Note: having a friend and/or partner to vent to is key to end-of-term grading success!)

After dinner, the sun was fading, the kitties were settling in for naps, and I was very much wishing I'd started early instead of sleeping late that morning. I still had a few more papers to grade, a curve to apply, a gradebook to update, and students to email. Determined to start the new week fresh, I settled on the couch and pushed on, but only because I felt I could still be objective. (If I hadn't trusted myself to be fair, I wouldn't have continued.) By midnight, I'd graded everything, written emails, and tied up as many loose ends as possible. I'd also started to realize what changes I need to make next term to try to help students learn and stay engaged. This is perhaps one of the most useful outcomes of a day spent grading.

In the end, yesterday wasn't so bad. In fact, it was quite good. The birdy lived. I got some exercise. I was pampered and fed and loved. I had time for a long, hot bath. And all of my work got done. For you, the rewards may be different. I have a friend who gardens, one who does spin classes, and several who craft to give themselves a nice break from work. Whatever your happy thing is, make it a part of your hard days. It just might keep you on this side of sanity with the rest of us.