Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Year of Hell

The school year 2013-14... it KICKED. MY. ASS.

It's not quite as bad as the "Year of Hell" header implies (that's a Star Trek Voyager reference) but it's NOT something I'd care to repeat (get it?). I cried in December, and I don't usually cry unless I'm watching a sad movie. A colleague had to help mark some of my exams in January, which is when I posted "seriously considering falling down the stairs as an 'out'". In May I experienced Teaching Paralysis and by the end of June I was watching clips of a psychotic anime to boost my mental state.

Kill me now

The hell happened here? It's never felt this bad before. Bizarrely, other teachers I follow seemed to be struggling too - though there may be some confirmation bias, in that I saw what I expected to see. Still, I'm in Canada, so the "common core" issues weren't the source... what was?

Here's the post that's been forming in the back of my head for two weeks. Feel free to read it - or alternatively visit WWNDTD or Justin Aion for possibly more relevant end of year deliberations.


Normally, I co-ordinate the Cappies, help with Drama, supervise the Anime Club and coordinate the Math Contests/Math Club. That said, last year (2012-13) the Ontario Liberal Government decided to enact the "Putting Students First Act" rather than allow teachers to bargain sensibly - I blogged the details of the whole sad story. The upshot was that I didn't do most of that stuff then, because it was basically the only thing over which teachers retained any autonomy.

So this year was a restart for half of that. Did that make it a bit more taxing? Add to it the fact that our Drama group is now going on a trip to Edinburgh in less than a month - and there was (and is) some additional responsibility there too (though I left most to our dept head). Too much? I don't think this will be a factor next year, at least. But it's something to bear in mind.


I take hardly any sick leave or personal days. Traditionally, I take two days in May to go to the OAME (Ontario Association of Mathematics Educators) conference, where the last three years I've also presented. This year, Semester 2, I also took a day to go to CMEF. And two half days to deal with/recover from the musical. And four half days plus one period (all on release time) to participate in the Cross School Math Networks. Even looking at Semester 1, I was away for two days (PD, one in school, one with heads). It all adds up.

I've previously mentioned how being away for a day causes more work. While I would say that being away was incredibly valuable in terms of the insights it helped to give me, there WAS a toll to be paid. In particular, of those EIGHT days, only a HALF DAY was actually me taking time to relax. (I think I had one sick day too.) This in a school year where there's never any snow days to catch your breath. I think I'm going to have to cut out elements of Professional Development next year.


For some years now, it's been my policy that if a student is stressing out over a test (for personal reasons), or they were away for part of the unit, and they bring a note from home, I can defer the test to after school or another day. Similar rule if they're away (for a reason other than a field trip). This is usually not a big deal, saves me making multiple versions, and I tend to work late so don't mind supervising a couple students after school.


One test day I had *OVER 25%* of students absent (across two periods). A few were on a field trip. A few had appointments or the like. The rest had notes (even then, at least a couple didn't, meaning even more follow-up). I had SIX people writing in the hall the next day because they "couldn't stay after school". I had people saying they "would write Friday morning" (the school's standard 'makeup' time for missed tests) but this meant I had to go through a bunch of paperwork to leave the test/formulas with administration.


But even when I WAS DEDUCTING from the Summative my seniors had to hand in, I still had LESS THAN HALF of those in on time! I actually went off on my Data class when we had presentations that were not ready Friday AFTER THEY WERE DUE ON MONDAY. (The first suggestion offered by one was to have larger penalities.) I'm going to need new policies. I hope I can still somehow accommodate any student who had a death in the family without leaving the floodgates open for anyone who "didn't have time to study".


-November 2012: "It's killing me."
-January 2013: "Forget about sleep ... forget about eating ..."
-June 2013: "I mark QUANTITATIVELY not QUALITATIVELY, damn it!"
-January 2014: "Grading on standards is the single biggest reason I am considering leaving the teaching profession."
-May 2014: "I see my practical traits, and my meticulous and detail oriented nature becoming a hinderance rather than something of any use."
-June 2014: "It's little things ... which keep me from wanting to kill myself. And I'm honestly not sure to what degree I'm exaggerating there."

This is the big one. Always has been. Think it always will be. At the risk of grandstanding, take whatever struggles you're experiencing with "not grading on points" and double them to get near to where I am. It's like I've been given two sets of mixed up IKEA furniture with no instructions, and told to "eyeball it - use your professional judgement".

Can I do it? YES. Is it killing me? HELL YES.

This image from "Beyond the Farthest" sums it up.

My colleagues have seen my struggles and approached me. I want to delve into one particularly interesting suggestion. Mark individual students. Normally, I mark all page 1, then all page 2, etc... then I would go back and spend an extra TWO HOURS figuring out individual marks (rather than 15 minutes totaling points). Instead, the suggestion is to mark all questions for one student, total, and move to the next.

Problem: My brain actively RESISTS this.

When I'm marking, I'm looking at the details, at what makes sense for each question and what pieces went wrong. When I'm totaling, I have to completely switch my brain over. I need to look at the broad strokes, to assign an overall level to the whole expectation. Instead of doing that once, I'd now have to do that 30 times, once for each student, and my detail brain in particular dislikes being interrupted. It was suggested to mark in sets of 5 or 6, so that I'd only have to switch over 5 or 6 times. Maybe. Even that I have trouble parsing.

But obviously I have to do something. Last semester, grading one set of 3U tests EASILY took me over five hours, with time to individually record results onto student placemats too. And I got them in sets of two. Though never a complete set because of absent students. Anyway.


Another colleague said a 4 page test with 10 questions is way too much. Fair enough, I somehow need to front-load this with less questions that are somehow richer. Something else I'm not good at... I work best in a framework, not redesigning from scratch. Similarly, when I test two expectations on a test, I'm mentally driven to actually assign a mark to EACH expectation. (And it does make sense to test a couple expectations at once, if for no other reason than so that students have to decide which one applies.)

Alternatively, yet another colleague taught the 4C course last year using tasks almost the whole way through. No tests at all. Tasks are effectively one (or two) activities or prompts that students need to work with - I've given some, and I AM able to mark through those per individual student. Because it really is only one question. (That said, I tend to do a preliminary pass, shuttling things into two piles, those who seem to get it and those who don't. Because order and logic.)

That last is maybe an option if I give frequent tasks, somehow. Reinvent myself, again. But even then my brain is wired for individuals, where all the research says that group work is becoming necessary these days.

The act of simply analyzing all this is making me want to cry.

Give me a moment. Need music.

Food for Thought: Almost every teacher dislikes, or struggles with, grading. Thus it can seem like you're simply one voice among many. I'm here to tell you that it IS possible that you're struggling MORE.


One thing at a time.

Next year, I'll figure out a way to not grade individual expectations, or at least to not record them that way. I used to do things that way, it just feels incompatible with this new system. I'll also figure out a way I'm happy giving tasks for some units, rather than tests. If I can, hopefully it will ease up on the volume. I STILL need to determine how to test individuals when everything is now a group mentality. That last continues to baffle me. Suggestions welcome, though I seem to have a bad track record on being able to implement suggestions.

Also, hell with it, I usually avoid name drops... but shoutout to Anne Fitton, Corinne Davison, Denise White and JP Brichta because without them I don't think my sanity would be intact right now. Also for folks on Twitter who helped keep me grounded. This is a long, long road for me.


I'm taking a year off. Not next year, because we have a system in our board whereby I can take reduced pay for two years, then take the third off for the pay that got held back. So 2016-2017.

It's as much about having more time to write as it is getting away from school. My web serial cut back from twice per week to once per week in January, and now it's on permanent hiatus. I've written less in the last 6 months than I did during the single month of July in 2012. That also bugs me. If I'm not writing, how can I continue to pester everyone with my random nonsense?

Whatever. Next post will be about positive things. I promise.


  1. I think I've commented on most of your grading posts.

    "Can I do it? YES. Is it killing me? HELL YES."

    Clearly, you are incorrect on that first question. You can't do it. This is manifestly clear. You appear committed to a path that isn't working, and ignoring all the people who tell you to change the path.

    1. Yes and no. I'm pushing back here: I CAN DO IT. I can usually peg a level similarly to my colleagues. There's only occasional resistance from students. I got through all my grading in June. What I lack is confidence and any form of joy through the act because it takes so long.
      Besides, if I couldn't do it at all, I feel I'd be more open to possibilities. If anything, it's the fact that I can do it this one way that's killing me, because it makes me worry about alternatives where I won't reach the goal at all. Eventually I'll get through this wall by beating my head against it; I'm not sure I won't drop the sledgehammer on my foot and thus be unable to work at all, because I have no sledgehammer experience. ...That metaphor got weird.
      So I CAN'T do it efficiently or effectively. I need to find an alternative that works for me. I'm not sure anyone can simply tell me that... but yeah. I should be more open, somehow.