This post originally appeared on the blog Secondary Sara: Innovations for English Teachers

There’s no way around it. No matter how much formative assessment you did, how much feedback you gave early, how aligned or focused your rubric is… you still have to grade it.

On the one hand, others have talked about how to make it easier. There are infinite articles about grading on TeachHub, Scholastic, and Edutopia, just to name a few. Carol Jago commiserated with us in her book, Papers, Papers, Papers. Secondary Solutions wrote a popular blog post with 10 tips for essay grading.

But on the other hand, other authors in education keep publishing books and articles about “effective” feedback for students that don’t address the practical realities of grading and commenting… which only adds to our guilt/indecision about the quantity and types of feedback to give (and thus the amount of time we spend per paper). 
I agree that we can all become more reflective, more efficient, and more accurately responsive to students through improving our grading practices… but these arguments often fail to recognize (much less address) the toll that grading can have on our personal lives in those well-intentioned attempts to be “effective”. 
Eventually, what happens looks something like the seven stages of grief
  • Denial (“It won’t take that long, so I’ll do it later”), 
  • Anger (“Why didn’t I start this sooner? I don’t have enough time for this”), 
  • Bargaining (“Okay, if I do five more, I can get on Pinterest”), 
  • Depression (“Why do I even do this?”), 
  • and Acceptance (“I have to do this, and it’s only one more pile”). 
Multiply that by multiple assignments, per class period, per grade level and course? No wonder so many teachers leave the profession to get their own lives back. 
The relief of being done and passing work back to students is sweet, but even in a well-designed situation, grading can be far more emotionally and physically consuming than some give us credit for (especially as we keep learning how bad sitting is for you). 
And it’s also not just essays – it’s the worksheets, the example sentences, the reading logs and journals and exit tickets and index cards and… the list goes on. No matter how cute it is, anything you have to take home counts as grading, and it can take longer than you want. 
So while I can’t wave a wand to make your grading pile go away (or mine), here are some ideas to make the process a little more bearable. 
While I can’t wave a wand to make your grading pile go away (or mine), here are some ideas to make the process a little more bearable.
  • Make students self- and peer-assess first. Getting inside their heads can make your grade decisions more confident.
  • Organize it immediately. I feel a lot better once I’ve organized (with lists and charts) whose work is on time, late, missing a rubric, etc. I bring home student work alphabetized in binder clips and boxes (pictured).
  • Do >10% the first night you take it home. It’s always hardest to just get started. You’ll feel better (and have an easier time resuming) if you’ve already started.
  • Start with one you’re excited to see. Get your bias out early, fuel  your curiosity, or feel good about the success of a student (before you start worrying about the ones who aren’t there yet).
  • Take them out of alpha order so you can’t obsess over which one you’re “on” (and how much is left to go). 
  • Or stack them up, such as in fives or tens, if you need to be able to visualize progress.
  • Have a drink. I mean water. Remember to hydrate, get up every 45 minutes, and do whatever your body needs. 
  • Get comfortable. Unless I truly need a desk to spread out on, I grade on the couch in a certain position that doesn’t kill my back and neck from hunching over. 
  • Race a coworker. My coworker and I have “raced” via text message to finish piles fastest!
  • Find your noise level. Need silence, or background music? Experiment!
  • Do not become their personal editor. ELA teachers especially… Even if you ARE grading for grammar, you’re not obligated to point out every error FOR them. Edit just one paragraph, page, or section. Create class norms that will make the amount you give “okay”. 
  • Stick to the rubric. Don’t nit-pick about other errors or flaws. 
  • Write down what to do differently next year. You won’t remember next year what you wanted to change! Don’t forget to reflect on how it went
  • Have a big reward… If the small rewards (like getting on YouTube every 5 pages) are too distracting, a bigger reward at the end may make you focus on completion.
  • … And small ones for intervals. Sometimes I feel more “balanced” if I pause every 10+ papers to check something, complete a home task, walk the dog…
  • Turn off your phone. This is single-handedly my biggest distraction, so sometimes I surrender it to my hubby until I’m done.
  • Pencil it in, in chunks. I physically write into my calendar what pile I will get done each day, mainly so I can visualize how much there is and prevent underestimating how long it will take. 
  • Set soft and hard deadlines. There’s the date I’d LIKE to have them done by, and the one by which they MUST be finished. 
  • Do it “early” in the day. Have a goal to get at least some done before 6pm, so that if you pick it up again later, you’ve at least started. 
  • Don’t be afraid to skip. If you can’t emotionally handle looking at a specific student’s work, then skip it and come back. You deserve to maintain momentum, and the student deserves your objectivity when you have enough energy to give your feedback
  • Get emotional. While reading student writing, I laugh, cry, feel fear, and fight the urge to throw my pen at the wall. Staying “invested” is not only a sign that you care, but you’ll be able to talk to students from the heart about their work
  • Keep a notepad handy. A lot of my ideas for procedure, revision steps, scaffolding, feedback, or future activities/assignments come while grading. Don’t lose your thoughts!
  • Rethink the assignment for next time. Can you make the rubric smaller? Limit the page count? Add a detail to the directions to make your expectations clearer?
  • Talk to your students about your grading. I try not to whine, but I choose to be honest about how long I spend reading and responding to their work. I think it cuts down on student nagging and humanizes the title and concept of “teacher”.
The reflection sheets and checklists I use are available for download here.

While I can’t wave a wand to make your grading pile go away (or mine), here are some ideas to make the process a little more bearable.
(PS – you might also like my followup blog post, “3 Common Myths about Grading, Busted.”)

While I can’t wave a wand to make your grading pile go away (or mine), here are some ideas to make the process a little more bearable.Secondary Sara is a middle school teacher & high school tutor in Columbus, Ohio. She has a Master’s of Education in ELA for grades 7-12 from The Ohio State University. She blogs with her golden retriever and her hubby by her side at Find her on her TpT store, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.