Buried Under Papers: 5 Grading Survival Tips

It’s that time again. Actually, if you are an English teacher, it’s always that time. You feverishly comment on 45 drafts, hand them back to students…and receive 50 more. In the meantime, 3rd period’s pop quizzes are getting moldy, six student presentations need to be assessed, your two sections of American Literature need tests corrected, there’s a handful of letters of recommendation that need to be written, and three (or four, or more) classes need to be planned—all by Friday.

Sound familiar? I don’t have the answers, but I do have sympathy and a few tips that have helped me weather a storm of essays for a decade and a half.

1. Reward yourself.

No, seriously. The school isn’t going to pay you more, so pay yourself. Maybe a piece of chocolate after every five essays? A quick round of Word Crack between stacks of tests? Whatever your currency is, use it. Liberally. When I’m buried (which, as I mentioned, is always), I set a goal. AP Papers: treat or break after every four.  Tests?  These are faster so I hold off until I get through a class set.  That, you might think, could lead to a lot of chocolate consumption. Don’t worry. You’ll burn it off pacing in front of your students.

2. Go somewhere else.

Even when I didn’t have three children clambering on me, I was more efficient working away from home. If you are an English teacher, you know that only half your job happens at school. At home, there are temptations and chores: Netflix and laundry, a good novel and vacuuming.  But if you go somewhere else, you are trapped with your work.  I like to combine this tip with Number 1, and head to a coffee shop where I can reward my (perpetual) overtime with a latte.

3. Chip away.

Let’s face it.  A stack of 50 research papers is daunting.  It seems to require hours of uninterrupted time.  I’ve found through the years that I can ninja-grade.  Dart in for a sneak attack, knock off one or two, then zip away before you’ve even realized you’re grading.  A paper or two at your kid’s baseball practice, another while you wait for the department meeting to start, yet another in a spare ten minutes before class.  Suddenly, you have four papers done, and you barely even noticed it.  Do this several days in a row, and your stack of papers will shrink like magic.

4. Set a timer.

time1It’s so easy to want to say everything.  My AP students actually read every comment and want desperately to improve.  I could regularly spend 30-45 minutes per paper, but that’s not sustainable.  I’ve found that setting a timer for ten minutes (fifteen for a more complex assignment) has helped me manage my comments and be efficient with my time.

*Check out some great online timers here.

5. Know your magic number.

Mine is four.  Sometimes five.  This is the number of consecutive papers you can read without spacing out and daydreaming.  After you hit the magic number, you will start spending more time than necessary on each essay as your brain frantically searches for something—anything—else to think about other than student writing.  Grade only the magic number and then switch to another task.

6. Buy better pens.

Really.  And change up the colors.  Don’t suffer with ballpoints.

Good luck.  Grading papers can be soul-sucking (I have 40 papers to turn around in four days!).  It’s never fast, rarely fun, but it can be managed.  And, unless you teach in a year-round school, there’s always summer…

This is a guest post from one of our Educators, Tiffany Joseph. Tiffany is a current high school English teacher and former college instructor.  She writes, reads, and paints as often as life allows. 

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