As a teacher, from nearly the first year I worked, I asked my students to evaluate the classes they took from me. I realized early on I would have to make it specific for the students to avoid getting too personal, so I came up with a simple matrix that kept it all above board. I had them give me three pieces of information. They were to tell me one thing we did during the term that they valued and should stay in the course. They were to tell me one thing I could take out of the course, and finally they were to make one suggestion to improve the course.
In those early years I commonly got the suggestion to return graded writing before I took up the next piece of writing. There, right there, is the procrastination trap I fell in early in my professional life. Those first couple of years, I took a long time to get essays graded. For a great many English teachers (teachers in general, really) grading is mostly drudgery. It COULD be fun when the students showed improvement, or I would hit on an assignment that brought out original or enthusiastic responses, but teenagers mostly have cliched, banal, or superficial ideas. They can’t help it. It’s a product of the stage they’re enduring.
Nonetheless, they needed to be read. They needed to be recognized. They needed to be corrected, and THAT is a burden. I have graded lots of different types of class materials, but none are more heavy or more complicated that grading essays. I used to be a Math teacher, so it came naturally for me to crunch some numbers when facing a stack of student essays. For much of my career I had about 150 students a day. Let’s say they all submitted an essay. If I spent five minutes reading and grading each essay, that’s over twelve hours of grading EVERY WEEK. In reality the more mistakes a student makes, the longer it takes to mark his or her work. Of course, the longer the essay, the longer the grading takes.
In those early years, I would sort the essays and then I would look for something else to do. Think of how resistant students are to reading their assigned material. At least they didn’t have to check the novel they were assigned for mistakes and then mark those mistakes and hand them to the author saying, “Fix these, and I’ll take another look at it.” I had a novel’s worth of reading to do each and every week.
Some people might think, “Well, you didn’t assign writing every week, right?” WRONG! I assigned writing nearly every day. “Why?” you might ask. Simple. The way people learn to write is by writing, and writing, and rewriting, and then writing some more. My students bellyached about the writing load more than anything else in my class, and I gave really hard tests, and I am notoriously cranky, and I liked to assign really challenging reading like Moby Dick and Dante’s Inferno. (True! Look at the earlier entries in this blog.)
Writing was work for them and even more work for me, but it was also the thing students left my class confident they could do. How many teachers get that feeling, I wonder? I wonder how many teachers can feel certain their students took a practical skill from the class. Maybe lots of teachers have that feeling, but not me. I was only certain of one thing. If a student made it through my class, he or she was no longer afraid to write. (He might not have finished a single reading assignment. She might not be able to tell a phrase from a clause. None of them might be able to differentiate between a simile and a metaphor.)
They were no longer afraid to write because I MADE myself grade their work within the time it took for them to generate their next packet of writing. I took a week. They took a week. I was not perfect at this, but I got pretty close.
That brings me to my last year of teaching high school. I instituted an even faster method of response. I got this suggestion from my older brother John F. McCollaum, History Teacher Extraordinaire. He would grade the students’ work while they watched him.
My last year at NMMI, I made this deal with the students. The day their work was due, they could come in and be marked and leave as soon as I finished grading their work. Now, I almost never finished grading all the students’ work before the end of the hour, but many students needed the hour to finish their work. Those who didn’t have the “live grading” experience, got their work back the next day. This was a great success. They improved, and those who really wanted to write, wrote more and wrote better.
I learned this. The quicker someone gets feedback, the greater that feedback’s effect. I offer this advice to anyone hoping to teach well.
First, grade the students’ work as quickly as possible and get it back to them. DON’T PROCRASTINATE. Second, never respond to an e-mail immediately. Always take a least twenty-four hours. That way you have time to reflect about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. Calmer waters are likely to be the result. Third, listen. Most people will tell you their truth if you just allow them the time and space to express it. Fourth, never let the grade be more important than the learning.
I could go on, but I’ll stop there. I feel myself ranging into another story, one that is filled with teacher horror.