I’ve been thinking about marking now, almost constantly, for over a week. Teachers think about it a lot. Maybe too much. I see the tweets, read the blogs, hear the rants. It’s a risky topic to cover. Too emotive. I’m half expecting backlash, subtweets, criticism- so please, resist the temptation and don’t be predictable, unless you really really have to. And please not unless you have read right to the end of this post.
Don’t get me wrong when I say that I’ve been thinking about this for a week or so – me and marking are inseparable at the best of times, all of the time. I teach English. I am also responsible for whole school T&L, in an academy currently judged as RI, formerly in a category, and our last Ofsted report cited marking as a key area to improve- I think about (and talk about) marking a lot; it has been a heavyweight scrawled and written on my shoulders for much of the academic year. I have pleaded and begged and asked and at times, I admit it, demanded and directed that teachers look at their students’ work and help them to improve it. I feel it, at times is an early epitaph (mind you, it does metaphorically kill me a little each time I open an unmarked book) I can see it now, ‘Natalie Scott 19somethingortheother – 20.. , Cherished daughter, beloved sister, blah blah blah.. Who Just Really Wanted Her Colleagues To Mark’. And yet some staff still don’t want to hear. Or worse, ignore and refuse.
I’ve tried many things, I’ve simplified and reduced our policy, led training sessions and passionately quoted Phil Beadle, showing the lines and phrases from his honest book, ‘How to Teach’. I’ve sat marking with them, paired them up with my Teacher Developers, showed them my books, showed them the books of others, slowly won over Heads of Department, made our targets bright as well as SMART and demanded that it is a two-way process. If we spend our time marking, then students can jolly well spend their time amending their work accordingly and making it better. It is teamwork. A two-way process.
We mark on a small bright yellow sticker, minimum writing, careful phrasing, maximum impact, an idea I’d seen used brilliantly in a former workplace and borrowed and built upon. I have introduced the ‘red pen of response’ (a colleague kindly branded it for me- thanks Rachel!) for our students, it’s just DIRT and the purple pen of progress but it is our way and, to tell truth, when we looked online red pens were far cheaper than purple.. tightening of school budgets and all.
So, a week or two ago I saw Phil Beadle speak. I am always blown away by his integrity, truths and examples. I wrote about him and some other great speakers here https://nataliehscott.wordpress.com/2015/06/14/teacher-conferences-cpd-praise-and-big-hairy-auditious-goals/ but although the post is getting old, his words still resonate, 9 days on, fresh in my mind.
Which brings me to my memory.
Mrs G. My GCSE art teacher. She was pretty stern, a little scary and only ever said something was great if it really really was. She was the queen of specific and meaningful praise. If it wasn’t either, we didn’t get it. It made us all want to get a “well done” from her. We knew it was true, deserved, we knew it meant way more than a “well done” from the skitsy, slightly crazy (think mad as a box of frogs) French teacher, the innuendo obsessed (train through a tunnel) English teacher or the German teacher who made a kid truffle shuffle, stood on a desk, for eating tuna sandwiches in her class. Mrs G’s praise was always for great work, taking on a challenge, trying something different or new, for getting better, improving. It was deserved. It mattered. It rested on our teenage heads like a crown of glory, on our shy hunched shoulders like a gleaming medal, gold and bright. It made us determined and resilient. It made us stand taller and feel success. Not only did she do praise brilliantly, delivered with a sparkle in her eye that lit the room and a half-smile that showed that beneath her frost that she cared more than most, but she also had feedback nailed.
Whilst her colleagues wrote me messages often as long as the work that I had produced, she would write a couple of bullet points. She had a social life if I recall correctly. And good on her. While others told me how lovely my work was and why they loved reading it and their favourite part and how funny I was and how they had really enjoyed marking it, she wrote her bullets, cold and honest telling me what to do to make it better. If I got it wrong in maths or History, my teachers would say “not quite” or “nearly” whilst she would explain it was wrong, and then why. Whilst most of my teachers gave me feedback, she fed-forward. And then she made me do what she said. And then my work got better. And then I wore the crown and took the glory, felt the sun on my face and the art run through my veins, for hard work and for learning that practice and hard work makes better. I got my highest GCSE grades and A-level grades in her lessons, yes, I loved art, but there was a reason for my success. Her. I don’t think that I ever said thank you. But I am thankful still.
Okay, so my art teacher helped me do well. Big deal. One kid. A longish time ago. So why else do we mark? Well, it shouldn’t be for SLT. I tell staff never to mark for me, not for scrutiny, nor for the Principal. We, they, I should, must mark for the kids.
So I asked the kids. They wrote the spine and the backbone of our policy. Every 2 weeks, on the stickers we had trialled in a few subjects, with targets, to help them get better, every teacher doing the same thing. Okay, it isn’t perfect. I’d prefer every 3-4 lessons (every 3 weeks for non-core) for one piece to be marked in this way, more is always fine- for the staff who like to do little often (like me as an English teacher) but it gives my successor a quick win in the popularity stakes- drop it, make it less frequent but more effective! I shared these student views with our Heads of Department and the draft policy, and marking has improved. Some (not all) of our year 11s thoughts are below, there were nearly 100 in total and only one of those said marking was pointless and that we shouldn’t bother! There’s always one.
So, that brings me on to integrity. So why mark? Integrity surely is reason enough. We teach because we want to inspire, develop and build the future generations. We should mark because it is part of teaching. Yes, marking absolutely is a matter of professionalism and has always been a part of the teacher’s job, yes it does as our beloved HMI friends tell us ‘show progress’ and help drive improvements and sustain them- and you know what? On this point I agree- when done well- because how can we plan informed lessons, check understanding, target questions and adapt schemes without looking in the books. In laymen, my, words- it makes the kids do better work. It helps them learn. They do better. Isn’t that what all teachers want? If you mark and set targets before an assessed piece, before the test, exam, work, then they can do better in the real piece. Why set targets after the final level is awarded? So I stopped it. Feedback should be feedforward, formative, timely. You don’t get written targets on your certificates after sitting a GCSE, A-Levels, your degree. It would be ridiculous. So why do it on end of topic assessments in school? I want my targets to be short, sweet, regular and helpful. Before a grade or level is given. I’m happy as a practitioner to be observed doing DIRT as it shows that every student has individual, personalised, differentiated, challenging targets based on the work that they are currently doing and they all get better, showing their improvements to be and observers in red pen. The kids use red to signpost their improved work. It is no longer a colour with connotations of an angry teacher saying no, no, no, wrong, messy, fix your spellings and grammar. It is red showing our students’ passion for learning and signposting their improved work for me, my colleagues. The students love being the ones to write in red. Funny isn’t it. And almost on a par with the power of a sticker!
We mark for them. We work for them. Every aspect of our role is about them. We can change the story of their life. Their future. Marking underpins so much, if not all that we do, me personally as an English teacher but also as a profession.
I’m not sure whether you can read all of the beautifully improved work here, from across our curriculum. But just look at the beetles, before and after a couple of short targets. The improvement is phenomenal. Art illustrates the power of feedback far more beautifully here than the other subjects. The student was so proud that he brought his mum up to us, twice, to show her the work he had produced, on display for all to see. That is why we mark.
And loss. My final reason.
Phil talked the other week (and wrote in his book), about an ex-student who wrote poignant words, that nobody saw. Sometimes a memory can be triggered and Pandora’s box is opened wide without warning and the sins and the pain and the hurt of the world come pouring out, the memory explodes and reality is stabbed with what did and what still cuts to my core. It slices to the heart.
I’m writing generally here about a specific and all-to-real event, a child I knew, in a school I worked in. So, no names, no places, no time indicators- but those who were there will know, will remember.
I never speak about this to staff when trying to get them to mark. I’m not good at talking about pain, but maybe I should have told this tale before. My mistake upon reflection. Sometimes the strongest leaders are the vulnerable, human, ones. So please, don’t ask for details, the child’s name, the school, the year, just read, just think..
A schoolboy died. He killed himself. He was in my form group. I didn’t see it coming.
His mum wasn’t around. He lived with his dad: an alcoholic regularly caught stealing, who came to school to collect his son with a needle in his arms one once, a user. The boy went into the care of another family member, also known to the police. The child, now, today, would be labelled PP, FSM, LAC. He was dyslexic, so probably on the SEND too. He would, without doubt, be on the CP register too.
I gave him breakfast on the sporadic days he attended school, passed a cheeky quid here and there for lunch, between us the Head of Year and I often washed his grey-white top, his grubby uniform, at weekend. He was a mite. Small, blond, blue eyes, tiny, malnourished, timid -with a gentle smile, a beautiful smile. He was one of 4 brothers, the baby, the others all older, one was at our school in a higher year group.
The older brother hit me when he found out that his little brother had died, lashing out at me, punching, firstly because I was by the door, but also because I had taught him too and we had a rapport, because he could see I was angry too, because I cared and was broken like he was. Then he collapsed crying, sobbing, at my feet. We both cried for his little brother. For our loss.
You see, possibly, maybe the awful, cruel, unkind, unfair death could have been avoided. My boy, the blonde small kid in my tutor group never wrote in form time, we discussed, we read, we did quizzes, but he had no book. Form time is still usually a marking-free zone to be fair. And he frequently arrived late. He didn’t come and speak to me. So I went about my job as usual, ignorant, unknowing.
He wrote in other subjects though.
He wrote in English, geography and History. He wrote. He wrote asking for help, about his sorrows, about his home life and the awful situation he was in. He wrote that he needed help, of violence his desperation, of how bad he felt and that he was giving up hope. He wrote that he had lost hope, that no one helped. Then he jumped. He never told me, nor his friends, nor his Head of Year how he felt. He just wrote it. And those teachers, for whatever reason didn’t read his words, didn’t mark his books.
And the child died. Jumped. We were devastated. The sibling, the teachers, the students with whom he spent lessons and time. I look back now, and I wish I had taught him, for my books were marked. I may have seen, read, known. But fate is cruel and sometimes we just don’t have the cards, in our own hands, to play. I doubt my colleagues have ever truly recovered. Who would. They weren’t bad people, nor bad teachers, not monsters and not responsible. They did well by many many kids. But what if? What might have been? These words are indeed the saddest words that can ever be written or spoken.
We all get behind with marking on occasion. We are only human. We are teachers but also lovers, parents, siblings, children. I try to mark little and often, it takes less time, doesn’t consume my weekend in its entirety. But it is a priority for me. Marking is important for more than one reason: So next time you can’t be bothered, or feel a little tired, maybe, please, just think…
Think, it is essential to our job because it makes a kid, kids, improve, feel special, achieve; it increases dialogue and can build rapport; it informs our planning; is what the kids want (judging by the views of those in my current school) and ultimately is a portal, insight, window into the life and minds of the children in our care.
Marking matters. It is personal. This blog is personal. I cried a bit as I wrote it. The views expressed are painfully personal to me. But this matters, marking matters as ultimately, lives could be saved or lost. They have been.
Please read every page and please mark.
RIP sweet boy. I’m sorry I didn’t make you write for me.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Natalie Scott and published with kind permission.
The original post can be found here.
You can read further posts from Natalie by clicking here