“Grading Flu” and grading burn-out…

I’m in my sixteenth year of teaching high school English.

I’m well beyond the national average length of a teaching career (11 years), and I attribute that mainly to the school I work at.  For the most part, Consol is supportive of its teachers, gives me a reasonable amount of latitude in how I approach my classes, and, most importantly, has some pretty great students – I get to teach them everyday.  Sure, the school has its fair share of knuckleheads (in the student population and elsewhere), and if I’m honest I could do without having to write up lesson plans each week (I’m not entirely convinced anyone looks at them), but I enjoy coming to work, by and large.

It’s the going back home that blows.

Now, before my wife starts filing the divorce papers, let me clarify – it’s not the home life I dread, it’s what is CONSTANTLY in my Bag of Holding that brings me down.

Papers. Quizzes. Projects. Homework. Newspaper stories. Annotated Bibliographies. Timed writings. Ad infinitum.

Right now I’ve got a set of Huck Finn exams (22 students), a set of timed writings (22 students), three classes’ worth of quizzes (58 students), three sets of annotated bibliographies (58 again), 15 news stories from my journalism class, along with some in-class work they did, and some other miscellaneous debris that, honestly, will probably be given a completion grade (which accomplishes nothing except grade inflation).

Later this week I’ll get 15 feature stories from my journalism class, and shortly after Thanksgiving break I’ll get my seniors’ research papers (58). At some point this six weeks I’ll also be asking my AP kids to write a formal rhetorical analysis (22 more papers), and we also want them to get a third timed writing in for a major grade.

Now, to be fair, the administration isn’t MAKING us assign these papers (though, certainly, the Texas TEKS requires various types of writing at each grade level), although there are two to three major grades required each six weeks. In an English class that really means writing.  Unless, of course, I want to give them some sort of exam, which is going to be short answer/essay, anyway, or some sort of creative project that ends up inflating grades and in the dumpster a week after it’s turned in. So I suppose there are other options for assessment.

Here’s the thing, though: students don’t become better writers UNLESS THEY WRITE.

And it’s not just the writing – it’s the feedback that’s needed.  If a teacher is merely assigning informal journal writing each week and checking it as a completion grade, his/her students’ writing won’t improve.  Same thing with formal papers – giving them a once-over, checking it for length and slapping a grade on it doesn’t count. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for informal writing and encouraging students to put pen to paper, but instruction in writing actually requires someone who knows what he/she is talking about to give feedback/correction/evaluation for it to actually improve (and here’s where I’d also grumble about students needing to actually read my damn comments).

But I’m TIRED.

I’m tired of a lot of things, actually, but I’m tired of reading essays that were written in two hours the night before the rough draft was due and then considered finished.  Yes, we edit in class, but peer editing is too often the blind leading the blind, or the uninterested reading the unconcerned’s.  I don’t have the time to edit all my students’ papers (I focus on those I identify as struggling), so I offer them examples of papers and editing sheets with guiding questions and hope that at some point in the semester they realize that if they read my comments on their earlier papers, their future essays will improve.

It happens, but not as often as I would hope.

But I’m mostly tired of having to take days off to complete my grading.  I’ve managed to avoid the “grading flu” this year so far, but I don’t think it’ll last.  The amount of work I’m bringing home just becomes insurmountable considering I have 1) a family at home I enjoy spending time with: kids who are involved in extracurriculars (piano lessons/recitals, soccer practice/games, choir concerts, confirmation classes, etc.) but who I also like being able to interact with when I pick them up; 2) a wife who works 9 or 10 hour days more often than not and doesn’t need to come home to a house that’s a wreck or having to figure out what’s for dinner every night because I’m grading; 3) a workout schedule I try hard to keep up with because I want and need to – I have diabetes, and regular exercise helps control my blood sugar; and 4) a desire to actually get away from the drudgery of grading and actually practice what I teach – I want to write more, but I feel guilty doing so because I know I have so many other things I can be doing. And I’m not alone: I know of no English teacher at my school who has NOT taken a personal/sick day to grade this year.  Isn’t there something wrong with the system where the district ends up having to pay a substitute to come in while the teacher stays home and grades – something the district is paying him/her for in the first place?

And then there’s the fact that whenever I take a day off to grade, I need to create lesson plans that will keep my students busy and productive that day, which often means more things to grade when I return.  You might say, “Just show a movie, that’s what my teachers did when they were gone”, but that’s not what I’ve been contracted to do.  There’s my damn INFP-idealism acting up again.

I don’t know about the practices of other teachers, whether math teachers or social studies teachers face this kind of regular demand on their time.  I don’t know how much of their time away from the school they have to spend grading assignments (I do know that Pratzilla once said he can get all his grading done during his conference period –  I don’t know if he still holds to that). But I am aware of the demands I have as an English teacher, and I do believe there’s a huge difference between grading a 3 to 5 page essay  (10 to 15 minutes/paper) and grading some other type of assessment. Particularly if you’re doing it right.

A couple years ago some members of the English department asked the administration to consider the time demands English teachers faced with their grading, and to their credit, our administrators responded with some changes to Consol’s grading policy.  My friend and colleague, BRP, however, has made the point, one I agree with, that decreasing the number of major grades required during the first/fourth six weeks didn’t really solve the problem.  The problem is time: we as English teachers assign work that takes time to grade – moreso than any other discipline, I’d argue.  Many of us are teaching 6 classes during the day (out of eight), some out of choice, others because we didn’t hire any new staff and we had unanticipated numbers of new students at the beginning of the year.  And unless we sacrifice some of the standards we’ve held our students to in the past, it means just as much grading.

Combine that with two five week six weeks to save the precious children from having to remember information over Christmas break, instead having our Fall finals in December, and time is at a premium.

What I’d honestly like to see is a recognition that, yes, English teachers, due to the nature of the work they assign, need to be granted a period a day to do nothing but grade.  Not a duty period or a conference period, but a period where we’re told “You will be allowed to be undisturbed for 50 minutes to grade the work you assigned.” Four hours each week.  I could get about a third of my senior essays completed during that time. If I’m just scoring timed writings I could get through a class in one period, easily. I’d even agree to check-ins from the administration – making sure I used my time wisely. I think the entire English department would agree to it.

And I bet it would serve as an effective inoculation against the grading flu.

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