I used to be a teacher who would take piles of schoolwork home to grade in my so-called “free time.” It was difficult, stressful, and to be honest, it rarely happened. Eventually, I refused to lose the little time I had with my family by spending it working through stacks of paper. I knew I had to find a better way. So I figured out how to get as much grading done during the day as possible.
Here are my tips, which I hope are helpful to some of you. Come on, teachers—let’s take back our weekends, evenings, and the precious free time we have left.
1. Use interactive notebooks to control the paper load.
Nothing has saved my sanity as a teacher quite as much as the interactive notebook. There are lots of different ways to set up interactive notebooks depending on which subject you teach—I like to browse Pinterest for ideas. What I like most about interactive notebooks is that they mean I don’t have to collect every single thing. Students can write and answer questions all day long, and I never get that question, “What do you want me to do with this?”
2. Spot check and stamp work rather than collect it.
Whether students keep their work in a notebook or a folder, there is no reason it all needs to be graded. Instead of reading every word that they write, I usually choose a few questions that I know are tricky and read those in class. Then, if the rest of the work looks complete, I give it a stamp. Students appreciate the immediate gratification, and I appreciate keeping the papers on their desks.
3. Have students read their writing out loud whenever possible.
Students in my classes write a lot, but if I were the only one to ever read that writing, then their classmates would miss out on all of their great ideas and opinions. So sometimes, I ask for volunteers or even require students to read their writing out loud. It’s a great way for more timid students to participate in the conversation, and I can check off the work as complete without bringing it home with me.
4. Step away from your computer during prep periods.
If I’m sitting anywhere near a computer, I will find something to do besides grading. From reformatting the handout for the afternoon classes to reading about my friends’ weekends on Facebook, there is no end to the distraction. So I find a warm, sunny place to sit somewhere far away from my computer, bring along a reasonable amount of grading and a caffeinated beverage, and get to work.
5. Keep comments to a minimum.
I know that students learn more about their writing from teacher conferences and mini lessons, so I keep the comments on final drafts to the bare minimum. A note about a success and a suggestion for fixing a weakness—and that’s it. If I want them to learn all of the rules for commas and semicolons, I know I won’t achieve that goal by writing them on their papers anyway, so I write just a sentence or two on final drafts and often a simple check for write-to-learn assignments.
6. Use a comment code sheet for bigger assignments.
When writing is too complex and nuanced for quick suggestions, I write out a comment code sheet and give that to them ahead of time. This way, instead of writing “This topic sentence doesn’t quite state the whole idea of this paragraph,” I can write “TS7” and when students get that paper back, they look up the comment to understand what I want them to learn. Even better is when I can use an online grading system to simply drag and drop a comment.
7. Set the tone for study halls and be consistent about maintaining a quiet environment.
This is a tough one for me. I would so much rather hang out with my students and get to know them on a deeper level, but I would also like to hang out with my own kids sometimes. So I get down to work when I am proctoring study halls, and I expect my students to do the same.
8. Thoroughly enjoy lunchtime with colleagues.
The time that I get to spend eating and talking to actual adults is too precious for me to lose. So I never grade through lunch. I also know that it would be a recipe for burnout and resentment—both which are counter to my ultimate goal of productivity. These 22.5 minutes of break time actually recharge me, and then I’m more efficient for grading.
9. Go home at the end of the day and don’t think about school.
The best way to make sure that I come back day after day is to unwind and enjoy my time outside of school the most I can. In the evenings, I take my children outside and we play tag, or I convince my husband to take a quick walk after dinner. At school, I finish as much work as I can. And I refuse to martyr myself to prove my dedication as a teacher.