Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Know When to Walk Away--Know When to Run"

Am I referring to a difficult exchange with a student? A department disagreement? No, as almost always, I’m referring to that charming stack of essays to be graded that almost every English teacher has fermenting in a tote bag on the seat of the car, near the front door, or by her or his desk. I try to grade essays within seven to ten days of receipt because I find students’ investment dwindles if I take too long to get the essays back. That makes me feel like I wasted energy, and I can’t stand that feeling. However, October is a busy time for me.

Besides the fact that I mother a four year old and the Halloween season is in full swing (he’ll be a penguin, by the way), the conference I coordinate for regional English teachers takes place next week, too. It’s an exciting time for both those reasons. Through some really poor planning on my part, all of my classes turned in essays to me about now. (I think I thought back in August, “The conference isn’t for another week; I’ll grade everything before the big day!” Did I forget that I decided to hand fold the programs? Groan.) I’m having difficulty quieting my mind sufficiently to pay these essays the attention the students who wrote them deserve.

Students like to get their work back quickly. Telling students I don’t have their work because my life kicked up a notch gets about as much sympathy as when a parent tells a beloved child she has a headache. “And this means what to me?” asks the child, eyebrows arched. So I don’t tell my students I’ve prioritized other things. Instead, I explain that, for various reasons, I’m having trouble grading with patience and interest. “I don’t think that’s fair to all of you,” I explain, “ so I’m going to take some extra time to be sure each essay gets the attention it deserves. I don’t want to take my stress out on somebody’s essay!”

I don’t think they’d grant me a month, but they do give me the breathing room I need right now. When students nag me about papers I’m already feeling guilty about, I tend to get snippy, which serves no one. I’ve found that openly pushing back from the table, confessing I’m walking away for a week or so, garners respect and space.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

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