Pain Management: Grading: Part I

A few months back I asked people to take the one question Teacher Annoyance Survey. The purpose was to see which of the three unavoidable annoyances of teaching is most bothersome to most of you. The vote was split almost exactly into thirds between 1) Tedium and Predictability, 2) Bell and Chain, and 3) No Career Path.

Here is part one of Tedium: Grading.

However one deals with the daily homework side of grading, there still await the tests, quizzes, projects and papers. Little might hope to be worse than your very own stack of 85 English papers or Algebra II final exams to grade. There will never be a good time to do this. They will sit in a pile and taunt you until you give in. They can wait, but they will not be denied. It is simply the way of things.

There are two basic ways to approach the grading of a giant stack of essays or exams. The first is to start in on them right away. Just dig in; knocking them out a few at a time whenever you have a few minutes. It starts immediately, while your class is still taking the test. As soon as the first kid is done, you grade his test. You will be able to get at least a handful of them graded before everybody is even finished taking it. It’s a small dent that can be psychologically empowering.


Though it sounds reasonable, and every graded exam is a good exam, there is a significant downside to this approach. The time a teacher spends in class when his attention is not necessarily divided among multiple separate items of immediate, mild annoyance is precious. Students’ sitting quietly taking a test is a sacred time for the teacher. Now there is a brief window of time when I might sit down and let my brain do as it pleases. Normally this would be out of the question.

I’m tired. It is quiet and I breathe. But this moment of blissful stillness prematurely evaporates into anxiety because I know that at some point in the next two minutes there will be a question. The question usually comes within the first 45 seconds and it is usually stupid. I will, however, pretend the question is not stupid. This effort will further sap my strength and remind me of the intellectual wreckage I will face in the stack of completed exams. A shiver runs down my spine.

But I have trained for this. I am ready. 

Moments after the initial vacuous query, logged at 1 minute 5 seconds, somebody will need to borrow a pen or spill something. I will confiscate a cell phone. It will be a much nicer phone than my own. Somebody else will need to use the bathroom. This can always be counted upon. Perhaps an error will be discovered rendering question number 3 unintelligible. I accept responsibility for this. In addition to being written on the board, the proper wording will have to be repeated many, many times over.

Maybe the top of the test indicates that today’s date is the 9th when in fact it is the 10th. Hands will go up immediately because students eat teachers’ mistakes like my dog eats cat shit. In four minutes, another student will rediscover the same mistake and ask about it. Perhaps page 2 is mysteriously missing from one-third of the exams, but, somehow, nobody will notice this.

A small group of students will insist that we didn’t cover any of the material on page 4. Yes, we did. Three students come in 7 minutes late. Two more arrive after 11 minutes. They will all be shocked to discover there is a test. They will need to be calmed and seated. Another student produces a note showing that she must leave in 10 minutes for a doctor’s appointment. She will not have time to finish the test, but has already seen the whole thing. A fourth student arrives 27 minutes late. He is clearly supposed to have a pass or a note, but does not. I am clearly supposed to send him to the office, but I do not. This decision comes easily because a trip to the office for him will create more work for me. Who needs that? Just sit down. Though it probably doesn’t matter, he won’t be able to finish the exam before the period ends. He will start it now and finish after school. But he won’t come after school. We both know this and we have tacitly agreed not to mention it. Ever.

Smarty and Dummy both finish their exams very early; at the same time, but for completely different reasons. My plan was to begin grading these right away. But I haven’t stopped answering questions and running around since my period of serenity began. And besides, there are two students in the back who I should really go wake up. The plan is not going according to plan, but I can still grade a few at lunch and right after school. A few on the train home. A few before dinner while I wait for the oven to heat up or the water to boil. After my kids go to bed.

This piecemeal, any-spare-second-I-get approach worked only occasionally for me. I didn’t like it because I needed those breaks of 5 and 10 minutes throughout the day to decompress and think about something else; to put my head on my desk and imagine I am really an astronaut or a dolphin trainer. I need to talk to a friend down the hall or put on some music. Go out for a smoke when I used to smoke. I started smoking out of necessity in my second year as a teacher. The true miracle is that I quit three years later while I was still a teacher. When you judge someone you see smoking, just remember that she might be a teacher. The smoke filling her lungs and the sweet, sweet nicotine traveling through her bloodstream to the pleasure centers of her brain might be the only thing keeping her off the evening news tonight.

The jab-and-retreat approach also requires one to continually return to the pain and literally carry it around with you all the time. It’s the Vietnam strategy; except it actually does work if done properly.

The second approach is the blitzkrieg. I used this more often and with greater success. This is the no fucking around method of precision planning and overwhelming force. You take it all down in, at most, three frontal assaults. You plan this out and prepare. It’s just you and your stack. You go to a coffee shop on a Saturday. (DO NOT go to a bar.) Get a table in the back, away from windows. Or sit at a big table in your house or apartment when you know you’ll be alone for at least three hours. Getting out of the house is highly recommended because you are more likely to be distracted at home. You spread out your piles and your pens and your sticky notes and whatever else you need. Turn off your phone. Don’t even bring your laptop. You spend time psyching yourself up and preparing to enter the battlefield. You’ve had a good night’s sleep. You’re talking trash; cursing and threatening the stack. It knows you’re serious because you’ve fucked your whole Saturday in the ass for this. Don’t turn your back on it. Look it in the eye and show no fear.

Let’s do it.

To be continued…

Mr. Teachbad


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