Make no mistake: this is the most important thing you do as a teacher. All the other stuff is of no use whatsoever if you don’t mark your books properly. You can be endlessly enthusiastic, have great subject knowledge, be fully cognisant of every rule and regulation, manage behaviour wonderfully, teach fascinating lessons at a cracking pace, which feature bucketloads of flannel-free praise, and it will be all to nought if you don’t mark their books. They won’t progress.
Antithetically, you can turn up hungover every morning, wearing the same creased pair of Farahs as last week, with hair that looks like a bird has slept in it, then spend most of the lesson talking at kids about how wonderful you are; but mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.
Marking burdens vary widely
There is a substantial difference in the marking burdens of different subjects. Broadly, and obviously, the more writing you have to do in the subject, the more difficult it is to keep up with the marking. Drama and PE have it easy; music, art and D&T likewise; maths teachers enjoy the blanket ticking session whereas scientists have to be slightly more focused.
Where it gets more vital and difficult is when you move from geography (hard, but you can always get them doing maps) through history (harder, but you can always get them doing historical maps) into English (nigh on impossible).
However, no matter what subject you are teaching you have a responsibility, and it’s a biggie, to your students, your colleagues and to society as a whole, to make sure that you focus really heavily on ensuring that there is a point to the work you are setting your classes.
A journey through a year 10 book
As an example, I’d like to share with you the story of a young lady I have been teaching this year. Her name isn’t Cerise, but we’ll call her that to stop me being sued. She is a very bright girl and, as I write this, a few weeks before results day, is expected to get a good grade in English. I have only been teaching her in year 11, but have read every word she has written over those eight months, commenting lovingly on it. By chance I came upon her book from year 10, and was interested to see how she had done that year. Let me take you on a journey through Cerise’s year 10 book.
The first thing we notice is that it is covered in graffiti: pictures of love hearts, stars, scrawled nascent attempts at a signature. Then we open the front cover and delve inside: the first page is well presented, but unmarked. The second page has been left blank. Third page: well presented, unmarked. Page four: blank. Five: less well presented, unmarked. Page six: blank. Page seven: token effort from student, unmarked. Page eight: blank. A whole (admittedly pitiful) term’s work with no evidence that any teacher has even considered opening the book to read what Cerise has written.
We return from the Christmas holidays and Cerise appears to have a new attitude. Her first page after the holiday, page nine, is covered with work – autobiography. We read it. Cerise writes, “I live with my brother and my dad. My mum died and it’s kind of hard at the moment, but as people have said to me, look into the future, not the past, so therefore that’s what I must do.”
What did the teacher notice? Nothing
What would a teacher worth their money notice about this? Decent complex sentences, correctly applied commas and ambitious use of a high order, conjunctive adverb, perhaps? Maybe they would notice that, in the line, “It’s kind of hard at the moment” that Cerise’s mum died relatively recently, and that, in writing this, she is telling the teacher that something cataclysmic has happened in her life, and she is struggling. What did the teacher notice? Nothing. She didn’t read it.
Page ten: blank. Page eleven: almost blank. Page twelve: blank. Page thirteen: more autobiography. We read. “I live with my brother and my dad. It’s good living with them but unfortunately it would be better if my mum was still here. This thought actually touches deep inside, but she died at Christmas, and is therefore no longer living with us. I always thought I was going step-by-step up in life, but this devastating cause, caused me to go two steps back, so eventually I gave up.” We look at the date, 12th January. We relate that to Christmas. We realise that Cerise’s mum died three weeks ago. We start to hate the teacher who has left this piece of work unmarked.
Page fifteen: unmarked. Page sixteen: blank. Page seventeen: unmarked. Page eighteen: blank. Page nineteen: unmarked. Page twenty: blank. Page twenty-one: organized writing, and finally we note there is a teacher’s comment at the bottom of the page.
Cerise has written, under the heading ‘Bad Day’, “One day I woke up for Christmas, and I got a phone call from the Doctor’s. My dad’s face dropped. I asked him what’s wrong. His face changed colour. I tried to ask him what was going on, and he told me that it was something serious, but I was just to hurry up and get ready. We left the house, and I found out that my mum was just about to die. I couldn’t believe it. My life had ended. I felt dead. I felt to cry. I was just speechless.”
A single tick in red
What do we see at the bottom of this devastating cri du coeur? A sympathetic word, a gentle touch of encouragement, the marking equivalent of an arm round the shoulder, an empathetic tear and the warm adult assurance that it will get better, one day it will, I promise you? No. We get none of this. Cerise got none of this. What did she get, as an exchange for opening her heart and revealing the state of utter torment she was in? A single tick in red pen, accompanied by the line, “You need to use capital letters properly.”
There is probably a reasonable explanation behind this crime perpetrated upon a vulnerable young lady. There always is. But whatever the reason, it isn’t anywhere near good enough.
It's all about professional integrity
For me, professional integrity boils down to one key rule: a teacher who places marking their books properly at the heart of their practice is a teacher who possesses professional integrity.
The reasons you should prioritise marking above every other facet of the role are manifold, but simple enough. Firstly, what is the point of kids doing the work if no one reads it? None. Like the tree in the forest that falls when no one hears it when a kid writes a piece of work for you to read, and you do not read it, it is, to them, like they haven’t written it at all.
Their effort is pointless if you don't read it
Not reading it sends all manner of negative messages to the child: effort is pointless, their work is of no value to you and they could have got away with not bothering. This is how kids are made to feel in crap teachers’ classes. Don’t make them feel that way in your class.
Where work is not properly marked or, worse still, is not marked at all, a pernicious negative message gets through to those kids whose work has been ignored in double quick time: they stop trying, stop caring and stop working. Pages get left blank, presentation goes awry, discipline disappears. An unmarked book rapidly becomes shocking, and tells any observer everything about you they will ever need to know.
A key observer’s trick, with which you can tell whether the teacher is good, bad or indifferent in seconds, is to look at the first page of an exercise book, then the last page. If there is evidence of progress in the standard of the work, then the teacher is a good teacher: if the work has gone downhill, they are not. Simple.
Make your career fly
Decent marking is the key to pupil progress. If you do it regularly and with a degree of professional fascination, proof marking every word and setting gradational targets, you will, whatever else your faults and flaws, be a very good teacher indeed. Your pupils will make exponential gains, the results that they attain will outstrip anyone’s expectations and your career will fly.
This excerpt is from Phil Beadle’s essential and irreverent guide to the classroom, How to Teach, ISBN: 9781845903930
Phil is an English teacher and has won the UK Secondary Teacher of the year gong at the National Teaching Awards.
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