Why the thing that made me want to quit is now the thing that I’m most looking forward to

In my nine years of teaching so far there is one thing that comes around again and again. I think about quitting. I Google phrases like “what careers do English teachers go on to” or “what careers can I do with an English Lit degree”. The answer to the latter question, especially if you don’t have much of a sense of entrepreneurialism (which I don’t), is: not much! This happens at the end of term two, every year, because it is when three things converge:

  1. the end of VCE unit 3 and all of the marking that goes with that;
  2. the semester one exams and all of the marking that goes with that, and;
  3. the reports home to parents and all the marking that goes with that.

Marking has been the bane of my English teacher existence.

It’s not that I don’t think I should have to work hard as a teacher. Having hours of marking ahead of me is hard work, but that is not why I don’t like it. I love hard work! That’s why I willingly choose to teach teenagers a compulsory subject!

I hate marking because it is mostly ineffective.

What’s wrong with marking?

Let’s say, for example, that I am marking a VCE English SAC. I have 22 students submit something they wrote in a little over an hour and a half. They’ll likely produce somewhere between 500-1000 words depending on ability. I read at approximately 300 words per minute, with a comprehension accuracy of around 80%. Per paper, at that level, by the time I have read the work, annotated some feedback throughout, thought about my final response, given the piece a grade, and finally written about 70 words of further formative feedback, it might take me roughly 15-20 minutes. On a good day. Often the writing is hard to read because it is illegible or not particularly coherent, or I’m tired and hungry so the words blur and I can’t remember what they wrote in the last paragraph…so maybe 6 hours or so, all up.

Then the student receives their work back, and they look straight at the grade. They might, might, look at the feedback. They might even re-read their work and see how the annotations apply to them. But the first thing they do is look at the grade.

That will lose many of them.

Without re-reading the piece, the grade doesn’t apply to their work. It applies to them. “I am an A“, they think. “I used to be a B, but now I am a D.

With the appropriate coaching and scaffolding, of course, you can overcome that. You can train them to approach the feedback in a more constructive way. You can even withhold their grades until they have satisfied you that they have processed the feedback. This step is a must, by the way. But there is still something unsatisfying at the heart of marking.

After at least 6 hours of work on your part, the student receives about 70 words of feedback, which they might read and act upon.

It’s not easy to concisely help someone improve a 700 word piece of writing in 70 words. All nuance and subtlety is stripped from your words. You could write a lot more. But you don’t only teach this one class of 22 year 12 students and only have this one assignment. You teach two year 8 classes and a year 11 class, too. And you’re the assistant year-level coordinator, or the soccer coach, or the kind soul that agreed to organise the formal. And you’ve got your professional review coming up, so you’re reviewing the SMART goals you set yourself, setting up a meeting with your peer mentor, and organising a lesson observation to evidence¬†how you are meeting your goals…

So you give them 70 words each, and Google “what other jobs could I be doing right now?”

Why I can’t wait to start marking again

Just before I took my paternity leave last year, I tried out some audio feedback on a set of student work. A colleague had mentioned that she’d heard it was something some teachers did and she always meant to try it out, and when I heard about it I resolved to float the idea with my year 12s.

I let them opt-in to the audio feedback experiment, and they all did!

I didn’t do anything fancy. I simply read their essays and briefly told them what I was thinking at the end of each paragraph, as though their essay had become a conversation with me. I gave them a grade and filled in a rubric with some ticks as well. I put all of the audio files in a Dropbox folder and shared each student’s link with them via email, telling them they’d get the grade and rubric in the next class.

Of course they listened to the feedback several times before the class when they got the grade, and all came in explaining how clear and helpful it had been. Some even said they’d wished we’d always done it that way because things finally seemed to click – not great on the last piece of coursework, but better late than never.

They also thanked me for how much work I had put in to the feedback. This was funny to me, because it only took marginally longer than usual, and felt a lot less like ‘real’ marking (i.e. tedious marking). They perceived it to be much more work, though, because they got much more feedback. It’s true. Having the freedom to say what was on my mind plainly, knowing that my voice would convey the tone more effectively, and being able to speak faster than I can write, meant I gave them a lot more feedback than usual.

Since then, I have promised myself I will make it a regular feature of my marking, and hopefully develop a workflow that allows me to deliver all feedback this way.

The exciting solution

Enter Kaizena. Kaizena is a document annotation tool that works with Google Drive, designed specifically with teachers in mind. It allows you to highlight parts of a student’s work to give feedback, and to link these easily to skills or standards that the student should be working towards. It also allows you to quickly link to specific lessons that either you’ve created previously, or that exist elsewhere on the web.

But the feature I am looking forward to using the most is audio feedback.

You can record audio feedback directly on to the document and the student can hear it and see exactly what part of their work it relates to.

This genuinely excites me so much that I cannot wait to start marking again, and I honestly never thought I would utter that phrase in my lifetime.

Why the thing that made me want to quit is now the thing that I’m most looking forward to