Five Ways to Make Marking More Tolerable

How I made my peace with marking

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Some great innovations have come about in recent years to help reduce the overall amount of marking teachers have to do, such as the use of verbal feedback and student-led peer or self assessment. While these have certainly helped to improve my work/life balance, it doesn’t get past the fact that for the average teacher there will still be several hours of marking to do each week.

Over the years I have figured out some ways of making this more bearable for myself:

Remember that the work is not yours

I sometimes felt that the stress of marking came from the sad realisation that some of my students didn’t try particularly hard. In instances like this it is tempting to judge yourself and to feel paranoia – if only I’d explained the task better; if only I had inspired them more; if only I’d reminded them of the consequences of not putting in sufficient effort…. In the end I had to remind myself that I have less influence over students than I might think. The quality of a student’s work was never really my task, it was theirs. Coming to this recognition was the first step towards lightening the burden by detaching myself from their results.

Remind yourself of the overall goal

Why did you become a teacher in the first place? The reason will differ for everyone, but keeping this bigger picture in mind can be motivating when marking becomes hard or feels stale. The passion you have for your job helps erase the suffering of the work.

Be a professional, not a hack

The professional shows up even when she doesn’t feel like. She is the teacher who understands that this is the price you pay to do good work because it means caring about what you do and doing a good job. However, the hack is a teacher who doesn’t care. He will do a passing job with the short-term view to getting it done, but he is not going to impact students in the long-term.

Work deeply

Maximising your concentration will not only improve how well you mark, but also help you get into a flow state. In this state it takes more energy to stop marking than it will to stick with the task in hand. Some methods I’ve found helpful include:

  • listening to white or brown noise (there are many Youtube videos which provide this)
  • unplugging from technology (putting your phone on silent and face down),
  • the ‘Pomodorro Method’ in which you use a timer to work in 20-minute bursts with a 5-minute breaks in-between (again, see Youtube for these).
  • Using an empty workspace that is free of visual cues persuading you to do something less challenging, such as check messages on social media, tidy up etc.

Reduce friction

Sometimes the actual challenge is not the marking itself, but getting over the hurdle of beginning in the first place. I used to rely on self-discipline to get marking done, which resulted in me not doing very much of it. I’ve since found the it helpful to trick myself into getting started by doing the following:

Stack the marking on top of a daily habit you already have

For example, if you are already in the habit of making a cup of tea at 4pm, you could decide ‘After I make a cup of tea, I will mark X number of books’ or ‘I will mark for 20 minutes’. Once the habit of making a cup of tea is done it’s easier to pivot into the act of marking if you have decided beforehand that this is what you plan to do.

Find a space to call your ‘marking zone’

My desk at school is where I sit to write emails and plan lessons. If I sit at my desk to mark, these simpler, more straightforward tasks will appear more attractive and tempt me away from the important job of marking. So I have a ‘marking zone’ which is an empty student desk in another part of the classroom. I only sit there to mark so when I sit myself down at this desk my brain know it’s marking time and nothing else.

Lower your expectations

If you’re finding it hard to get started, just tell yourself that you’re going to mark two books, or even just one. If it seems easy, you’re more likely to get started. Once you’ve started, you might want to continue. Anything is better than zero.

Associate marking with positive feelings

Re-frame any anxious feelings you have before marking. For instance, you’re not feeling nervous, you’re excited. If that doesn’t work, tell yourself that what you’re feeling is a sign that the work you’re about to do matters. Being more mindful of the language you use when talking about marking can make it seem more attractive. You don’t ‘have to’ mark student’s work – you ‘get to’ mark their work.

Surround yourself with exemplary colleagues

Look for other teachers who already have a regular marking habit or speak of marking in a positive way and avoid those who don’t. This can make marking seem more attractive as you’ll want to fit in and not be the black sheep of the department. Your actions are often a reflection of your identity. If you consider yourself a good teacher, you’re more likely to do the hard work required.

Reward yourself afterwards

The anticipation of a reward (something you’ll enjoy – another cup of tea, a 5-minute burst on Instagram, a chat with a colleague) causes dopamine to release into your brain which will motivate you to act on your good intention of marking.

This is not to say that I now love marking because I don’t. But I don’t dread it like I used to.

What do you think? Is there anything else you do to make marking more tolerable? Let me know in the comments below.

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