Death by Essays: A Teacher’s Survival Guide to Grading Marathons

Death by Essays: A Teacher’s Survival Guide to Grading Marathons

The stack of essays is overwhelming. The “needs to be graded” stack/folder is greatly outnumbering the “graded” stack. You are reading papers during passing periods, dropping crumbs on them during your lunch break, and splattering spaghetti sauce while you cook dinner, and yet you can’t seem to finish them. Or you finish a class set and before you can enter the grades and return them, you’re collecting another set. The “needs to be graded” folder is a relentless, unending bane of your existence!

Okay, that last line was a little dramatic, but I think any English teacher has felt that way before; like you just can’t get caught up.

While these papers do suck the life out of us sometimes, we all understand the value of these ruthless academic endeavors. Of course, our students are benefiting from all of the writing and all of the constructive feedback we provide, but something has got to give in order for English teachers to not call in sick in order to grade papers (yes, I’ve done that).

I’m here to offer a couple survival strategies that work for me.

Use a reward system

This sounds pretty simplistic; it is, and it works. Here’s a personal example of using a reward system on nights or weekends that I would grade for several hours; I call these grading marathons. For me, the reward system was a glass of wine. I would set a benchmark, and when I reached my goal, I would take a break and have a small glass of wine. I would rest my eyes, my mind, and regroup before I went back at it, and then of teachers survival guidecourse repeat by rewarding myself with another glass of wine. When I was pregnant, I swapped the wine for peanut M&Ms. Same thing: take a break, enjoy the deliciousness of the candy, and then back at it. A reward system can be set up as a time limit or a number of essays. If it is a time limit the same principles apply. If you diligently grade for maybe 45 minutes, then give yourself a fifteen-minute break and do something more enjoyable than grading student papers. I would do this a lot when I taught online classes and would be grading responses on my computer. If I could stay focused for 45 minutes out of the hour, then the last fifteen minutes I would go on Facebook or do some online shopping.

Find an efficient rubric and comment system

To be an efficient grader you must avoid duplicating your efforts, which will slow you down and burn you out even faster. For example, if you make a comment in the margins of grammatical errors or needing a stronger topic sentence, avoid having to write that same information on the student’s grading rubric. Whether you are more comfortable using a holistic or point value rubric, avoid writing the same information in multiple places. Students deserve a justification for why we assign the scores, but we don’t need to waste our time writing it in multiple places. If you circle something on the rubric pertaining to a lower score due to some kind of error, then the student can look at the paper to see where those errors are noted.

Find your most productive environmentnew teachers survival guide

Most of us have spaces and places we are less distracted and more comfortable. We also have natural tendencies to be more productive at certain times of the day. Discovering and utilizing these times and places are key to our efficiency. I know what you’re thinking: sometimes you have so many essays that you have to grade anytime, anyplace because there is no other way to keep up. That was me about five years ago. I literally have splattered spaghetti sauce on a student’s paper because I was reading essays while making dinner. My worst example is bringing a stack of essays with me while getting a pedicure. I remember lying in the bed that night so frustrated with myself. I finished the papers, so I typically would go to bed feeling some sense of accomplishment and relief, but this night I was irritated with myself. I gave up one of the few pleasures I had scheduled for myself that week. Let’s be honest; when you are a teacher the week is full of things you need to do; not too often do we make time for things we want to do. I scheduled myself a pedicure, a treat for myself, and I ruined it by bringing a stack of freshmen essays about Odysseus’ journey. I was consumed by grading that I didn’t even let myself relax and enjoy the treat I so kindly gave myself. So we need to tap into our most productive times and places and accept our own limitations. I know that when I try to squeeze in a few essays when I am rushed and distracted, I often have to re-read or (cringe) re-grade an essay because I wasn’t focused enough the first time.

I hope these tips resonate with you. If there is something you do that seems to help you be a more efficient grader, please share with us in the comments.


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