A couple of weeks ago I found myself in a conversation with several of my colleagues about Baseball's opening day. For one, an avid Red Sox fan, Opening Day marked the beginning of the end of the school year. "You know what it means to me? It means that I have arrived at the point in the school year at which I can start counting the number of papers that I have left to grade in hundreds instead of thousands."
"That's the most depressing thing I have heard all week," said my good-natured colleague.
"No it's not," I insisted "it's hopeful."
The prospect of having thousands of papers to grade at the start of the year is daunting. Hundreds of papers are manageable. It's really just a matter of setting aside the time, adding as much caffeine as is needed, allowing for occasional procrastinating visits to Sh*t My Students Write for purposes of encouragement and letting fly. It falls nicely into a pattern that the author of not that kind of doctor has called the Five Stages of Grading.
When I first started teaching and I went home over winter break with a pile of ninth grade essays on To Kill a Mockingbird, my dad looked skeptically at me and asked me, "Does everyone spend as much time grading as you do?" and then hurriedly followed that up by saying "I am not saying you're doing it wrong, I am just asking if it takes everyone this long to get it done."
I got the idea. He was asking, in his own Dad way, "Do you just suck at this? Or does this really take this long?" He meant well. There's a good reason why the obvious answer, that it does, in fact, take this long to teach kids how to write properly, was not immediately apparent to him. It's because we often hide the amount of time that we spend grading out of a fear that the amount of time we spend working outside of the school day is in some way our own failure. I always felt as though there was someone out there had figured out a shortcut to reading and marking papers and I was just ashamed of the fact that I hadn't discovered the secret yet.
It has taken me a while to accept that I do not actually suck at grading. I am not doing something wrong. It just takes a really long time to do it well. A really long time. This is what I find revolutionary about that a couple of groups of teachers in New Jersey and Michigan - two states where teachers have been under a full assault from all sides - are doing by staging grade-ins. They are sitting in public and doing the things usually done around their kitchen tables at night after their kids have gone to bed or in the local Panera Bread (free WiFi, cheap coffee) on Sunday afternoons or on the subway train after work or wherever else one might find them outside of school hours.
The fact that we can't get done everything that we need to do during the school day is not a failure on our part. It is a reality of the job. Here's the other reality: as class sizes increase year by year and as state testing systems pull writing off of their assessments because it's too expensive and / or time consuming (ya think?) to grade all of the student responses, English Language Arts teachers are the only ones actually teaching writing. I know that this is a huge generalization, and there are plenty of other content area teachers who are, against all odds, teaching kids to write on lab reports, research papers and explanations of math problems. In my ideal world all teachers would teach reading and writing. Why? Because kids have to encounter language skills in multiple contexts in order to actually be able to utilize them when they need to do so.
Again, back to reality. I know how long it takes to grade this stuff. And I totally understand why someone who does not think that it lies within their content-area job description to teach writing would not do so, especially if their class sizes have increased by 15-20% over the last five years like mine have. It's hard work, and it's not particularly familiar territory for a great many teachers. Despite this fact, the sense among ELA teachers that we are now the only ones teaching kids to write only adds to the pressure to provide meaningful feedback to students. And as there are more and more students in my classes every year, it becomes more difficult to provide the kind of feedback my students need. It also means that students think that pesky things like mechanics only matter in English class (if even there). In case you need a reminder of why little things like this matter, see Taylor Mali on the subject.
Teaching kids to write isn't easy, cheap or convenient for anyone, but I wouldn't be doing this job if I didn't believe it to be necessary and important. I suppose that what I want people to understand about the time that teachers put in after school hours is that this is an important part of children's educations. I also want them to know that as teachers, every time someone says "Oh, of course teachers put in some time outside of school, but..." we cringe. We cringe because we know that whatever idea they have in their heads about what the work we do outside of school is like, they really have no idea. They have no idea at all how long it takes to provide feedback to 150 14 and 15-year-olds on what it is that they have written.
Unless teachers make the invisible hours spent grading, planning, writing IEP goals, responding to parent phone calls and e-mails, writing curriculum and tutoring kids one on one visible to those who would blow that work off as insignificant, we can't expect anyone to understand. We can't expect anyone else do do it for us.
The problem is that teachers working alone at home around dining room tables are very easy to ignore. Speak. Write. Make your voices heard. And when people tell you that they know what it is you do with your time, say very politely, "No, I'm sorry, you do not. Here is what I do. Here is why I do it. Thank you for listening."