Marking, grading, whatever you want to call it… it’s core business, right?

Marking is intense because it is both physically and intellectually demanding. It is also a core part of our role as teachers, and thus unavoidable. I’m a high school English teacher, so I feel like my marking load is exponentially greater than everyone else, but I doubt that is true. With the introduction of mandatory and frequent data gathering on students, it feels like the marking burden is going to continue to increase significantly. This, of course, is a problem for teacher workload and the dreaded ‘b’ word – burnout. Currently I am neck deep in HSC marking – this is an optional activity, so I can’t compare it to the mandatory marking load, but of course I am going to anyway. Why? Because the experience is the same whether I am paid to do it or not, and in fact what HSC marking does is crystallise just how intense marking can be on mind and body. When you tell people you are HSC marking they have sympathy and admiration in bucketloads. Tell them you’re giving feedback on year 10 draft essays and the response is less so – they might even think you’re a nuts. (Not denying this claim yet!)

So what is marking all about anyway? Why is it such a fundamental feature of teaching? Has it always been that way? Look, I’m not about to go into a long history of educational practice because basically my eyes are stinging as I type this having just woken up tired again. But from my understanding of history, marking and education are a fairly recent phenomenon. Well, at least to the extent that we do it. When I say marking, I’m referring specifically to the practice of having students complete a specific set task (typically written but it isn’t always and the medium doesn’t really influence the nature of the marking experience in my opinion) which is then submitted to the teacher for one of two purposes – to be assessed (usually against a criteria and often for the purpose of reporting on student achievement) or to receive feedback (usually in anticipation of the former, but not always). I think it quite funny that regardless of which of the two I am doing, I refer to both as ‘marking’. Maybe that’s why it feels like I never stop marking, haha! Well, I just Googled ‘marking definition’ and it doesn’t give me what I want… and I’m thinking that’s because in America they use the term ‘grading’, right? My Google definition is this: ‘the act, process, or an instance of making or giving a mark.’ But the word ‘mark’ here doesn’t mean 15/20, it means like a little coloured tag or a symbol on the side of an animal, haha. Maybe that’s a good analogy for what marking does to the recipient (cos as teachers we sometimes forget about the receiver of our hard work) – a little coloured tag or symbol that students carry around with them. (Genuinely don’t get me started on the impact that marking – giving a numerical mark or grade – has on kids, we know I don’t like it, right?)

So where was I going with this? (Flicks to mental notes about purpose of rambling, ahem, discursive piece of writing at 6.30am.) Oh yeah, why do we do it? Why do we mark/grade stuff so obsessively? I guess it’s to know if what we’ve taught has stuck, right? For some people it’s to find out how smart kids are – like what their potential is based on a criteria of excellence. I’m more of the belief that what my students produce reflects my performance as a teacher. Of course this isn’t entirely true (life has a way of bleeding into education and there’s not much we can do to stop it, thus full responsibility for student success isn’t ours I suppose) but it is a good mindset to have if you want to improve and grow as an educator. I suppose that adds a third dimension to the intensity of marking – the emotional. It can be quite dispiriting to spend hours marking work that isn’t at the standard you would hope it was, and you can feel a bit of creeping despair about your practice and your potential. At least that’s how I feel when my students’ results don’t reflect my hopes for them, and really for myself (given that ego can never be separated from the marks your students receive, not if we’re really honest).

The physical aspect of marking can’t be denied. Right now I’m sitting on my bed, typing this rambling post on my iPhone, eyes stinging, back aching, unable to go morning running like I had been for the last 6 months. Marking require teachers to sit for prolonged periods of time, doing relative movements, with intense focus. Almost everyone I know who has done HSC marking (which requires you to do sustained periods of marking with only small breaks) has had some back or wrist trouble. One of my colleagues has RSI in her wrist from marking papers in her first years of teaching. My recommendation is to stand and mark if you can, to get a riser for your laptop, a separate mouse and keyboard – laptops really can give you neck problems too because of being hunched over and looking down. In saying that, I marked for four hours last night whilst sitting on my lounge and the laptop on my lap. I’ll pay for that tomorrow. I guess the physical aspect is also the fact that you can’t fit marking into your school day – not typically – and that means that you’re doing overtime. Either you’re marking at home after school, or on your weekends, and this takes away from you ability to take a break and refresh.

I feel like these days my posts are becoming more and more about teacher workload and how difficult it is to balance. I try to be constructive and positive, but perhaps the exhaustion of the last few weeks has caught up? Yesterday my colleague used the best word to describe how I’m feeling – fatigued. My goal is that teachers don’t feel that way (I’m talking generally not about the madness of HSC marking which is optional) – that we feel fresh and ready for each day with our learners. Maybe my next post will be a part 2 on marking – some tips for avoiding the physical, emotional and intellectual fatigue that it has the potential to inspire? We’ll see. Until then, I’m going to be late for class so I won’t spellcheck this post. Enjoy the typos! 😆

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