Teaching is a noble profession.
As a species, teachers (and in this broad classification I even include Mrs Prymm, who frequently used an 18-inch ruler across my knuckles in Grade 2), if you go deep enough down, are good people. They believe in noble causes. Such as saving the planet. And rescuing oil-covered penguins. And persuading the school’s management council to install a coffee machine in the staff room.
There can be no doubt that they want the world to be a better place. And they would be the first ones to take action. In protest marches, they would be the carriers of the most outspoken banners – the ones that strike fearlessly at the very stronghold of the enemy, written in headline capitals with at least two emphatic exclamation marks.
They would be – except that they have marking to do.
Yes, it is a sad, sad truth. The world is denied its most potentially vehement support group because of the tyranny of an education system in which the teacher is still regarded by parents, heads of departments, principals and subject advisers as professionally suspect unless their pupils have plenty of work liberally befouled with a red tide of underlinings, crosses and circlings – to say nothing of double exclamation marks in the margins. All of which take the teacher to bedtimes well after midnight, so that they are quite incapable of summoning up the energy to save the world, or make it a better place, or even put up a hand at the staff meeting to ask when the coffee machine will be installed.
The educational theory behind the obsession for letting no error escape without surgical attention, thus rendering the work red and bleeding like a scene from a soapie involving open-heart surgery, is seldom queried. The mark-every-error advocates work from the assumption that pupils actually learn from mistakes which are rudely exposed and glaringly highlighted. Hellooo! Even if the learner does go over the returned work (which they strenuously resist and they will only do corrections if forced at gunpoint), they can barely see their mistakes for the red blood. A soldier could no more have learnt how to fight better by studying the wounded and dead strewn across the Waterloo battlefield.
Sadly, well-meant efforts to incorporate marking into the learning process by channelling it into constructive categories such as assessment that is ‘formative’ or ‘summative’ or ‘remedial’ or ‘pupils’ own’ (while making the whole process more educationally sound) have done little to ease the teacher’s marking burden. Marking justifies grades – and graded results are still regarded as the bottom line for determining how good (or bad) a teacher – and the school – is.
As a young teacher, I once chastised a boy for taking just three seconds to scan the test for his mark before proceeding towards the waste bin, while carrying the paper with distaste far away from his body by forefinger and thumb.
“How can you just throw it away? That took me a long time to mark,” I admonished. “Oh,” he said, surprised. “Well, sir, you keep it then,” politely proffering it to me.
“No!” I said, waving it away, “Study it to see where you made your mistakes. Then keep it in a test file.”
“Why?” he asked, obviously puzzled. “It’s horrible. I have no wish to treasure this thing.”
“Well, you should go over it to learn what’s right from where you went wrong…”
He answered patiently, “Sir, what’s right is what I didn’t write, not what I wrote. That’s why you put red marks all over it. What’s right is not there. How can I learn from what’s not there?”
He had a point.
Perhaps the Save the Environment brigade could turn their attention to a world closer to home. The environment of the teacher is also badly polluted – not least by rubbish-tip piles of soul-destroying marking serving little purpose.