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(Juliana Neufeld for The Globe and Mail/Juliana Neufeld for The Globe and Mail)
(Juliana Neufeld for The Globe and Mail/Juliana Neufeld for The Globe and Mail)

I love teaching but I hate marking Add to ...



There are seven deadly sins, seven seas, Seven Wonders of the ancient world, seven habits of highly effective people and seven years left in my career. At this auspicious moment in my working life, I have recently been inspired by the idea of outsourcing marking overseas.

I hate marking. I love teaching. Teaching is a bit like being a comedian at a stand-up club. We perform for an often unruly and unreliable crowd. My classes frequently laugh at the things I never thought were funny and seem to prefer slapstick over cerebral wit. I often struggle to maintain composure when my audience ignores what might have been my best lesson on the quadratic formula.

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But comedians don't have to stay after the show and clear the tables and sweep the floors. That's what marking is like for a teacher.

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When I started my teaching career about 20 years ago, I was excited to mark anything - essays, quizzes, tests, journals - because it was tangible evidence of my teaching ability. I marked in green ink, thinking that red was too aggressive and that green might assuage the disappointment of failure. I'd write "good!" and "excellent!" for anything that was pretty good, and the lesser "good effort" for effort that was modest. I used numerical marks until the trend for rubrics overcame me and I was forced to partition students into four categories (Levels 1 to 4) without clearly defining excellence or mediocrity.

My high-school French teacher, Mr. Joly, was probably not at the start of his career when he decided to share his work load with the class. Perhaps he felt we'd never need a second language, and so, after each quiz or test, we would hand our paper to a classmate and Mr. Joly would read aloud the answers. I never got suspiciously high marks, but my friends made sure I got the required credit.

In graduate school I was a tough teaching assistant. I was given a section of third-year microeconomics and total control over marking midterms and exams. The professor had the glory of teaching while I got the tedium of late nights in a crummy office, condemned to work for serf-like wages.

I suppose I transferred some of my anger to the students and gave them lousy marks. The professor asked me to come to his class and explain why the students did so badly on the tests. I entered the theatre-style lecture hall and was pilloried by more than 300 future economists. I ended up adjusting the marks, and vowed that I would never again compromise my standards. I reframed the marking process so that I no longer "gave" marks, but simply "revealed" them.

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I am sometimes tempted to use marking methods that are largely urban myths. For example, I am renovating my house and the stairs that lead to the basement - now stripped of mouldy carpet and laying bare - could be painted with letters, say from A to F, on each successive tread. I could then toss student essays down the stairs and wherever the paper lands determines the grade. This method would at least encourage students to surpass the minimum required word count for essays: Longer and heavier papers would more likely land on the farthest stair tread, onto which I'd paint the A.

Math marking is a little trickier to fudge. Students compare answers like election scrutineers and will argue for any part mark. Surprisingly, though, math teachers can be as subjective as English or history teachers. My former department head asked six teachers of senior math to mark the same Grade 12 test paper. The student's name was removed (never underestimate the power of personality to influence any form of evaluation) and we were given a day to finish our task.

Our marks were 10 per cent different: Some of us wanted more beauty in the solutions, others removed marks for missing steps, and for all of us the final answer was never the goal. It's no surprise then that students will teacher shop, looking for the "easiest" math teacher.

I tried one failed attempt to outsource my marking. This was with my daughters and the task was simple and mechanical: Mark 60 multiple-choice quizzes, each one 20 questions long. I gave them each a solution key and they went off with red pens and the promise of $5 for a finished job (they were 10 and 11 years old and willing to work for serf-like wages).

After 20 minutes I heard the 10-year-old sobbing in the bathroom, where she had chosen to do her marking while sitting on the cool tiled floor. She had misaligned the answer key and so everyone in her pile had failed the quiz. She was sobbing because she had discovered her error and not because the marks now doomed the class to a smaller future. I assured her that I could fix this and we marked everything again and changed the grades. She has since removed teaching from her roster of possible careers.

Teachers who are sending their students' work overseas are not outsourcing inspiration or diluting the power of their presence in the lecture hall; they are simply detaching the mundane task of marking from the more important task of teaching. As long as they have the answer key, and maybe a few good green pens, the overseas markers will do just fine and the students will get a bonus lesson in globalization. Maybe my next set of exams will soon be in the mail, sent to kinder folks abroad.

Kevin Bray lives in Aurora, Ont.

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