How to Grade Essays Standing Up

Image by Crystal Hurd
Image by Crystal Hurd

By Crystal Hurd

The shrill staccato of the morning bell echoed through the congested hallways of the high school.  There they, a cluster of students in various moods – some excited, some nervous, others sleepy and apathetic – waiting for me to open the door. I pass out syllabi and thoroughly explain expectations for the course. Then I do it again another three times. Nearly hoarse and limping in my heels, I come home completely exhausted.

And then the next day, I do it all over again.

My schedule includes lunch duty (yes, again) this year. It only leaves me about 20-30 minutes of planning time to grade, place said grades into the online gradebook, answer emails, do academic errands, and…oh yes…try to answer the call of nature.  That is the quickest 30 minutes of my day.

Oftentimes, I find myself standing in lunch duty with a handful of essays. Dramatically marking up an absent thesis statement or gently reminding students of the need for transitions.  My handwriting already looks like chicken scratch and with the tendency for gravity to pull at the edges, sometimes I have to politely explain to students the intention of my comments. But it always turns out just fine. The students do better on the next essay, which eliminates (or at least diminishes) the need to scribble on their drafts.

Despite the fact that I am so tired I could nap in my chair some days, it is still, after eleven years, amazing to watch these students grow and develop. I have them look at their very first essay and compare.  See how you have grown?  They marvel and chuckle at that first draft. “Gosh, what was I thinking?”  “This is completely disorganized.” “Um, I like the stuff I write now much better.”

And that is why I get up every morning and return to that classroom full of textbooks and flash cards and dictionaries. The media will tell you that public education is a joke. They will tell you that teachers are overpaid and lazy, that they are a far cry from professional, and that they only care about test scores. But this, like many things in the media, is a fabrication, or in the worst scenarios, extreme hyperbole. My colleagues are some of the most professional, creative, and compassionate individuals I know. I can provide you with example after example of the selflessness that is exhibited daily (and silently) by American teachers. So many students would have slipped quietly through the social cracks, would have settled for a life of mediocrity if it were not for the continued encouragement of a teacher. Many, many lives have been transformed by kind words spoken which provoked students to rethink their value and trajectories.

I must admit, it is easy for me to watch the news and become discouraged about my job. Many ask, “Why don’t you just go teach college?” Although I have served as an adjunct professor, I am still drawn to the day-in, day-out of teaching in the trenches of public education. Although we navigate a plethora of revolving educational reforms while teaching students who battle with homelessness, poverty, abuse, multiple learning disabilities, and even pregnancy, we know we are making a difference one student at a time. All of the media chatter seems to fade away when I flip the florescent lights hovering over of my classroom. This is where dreams begin. This is where hard work occurs, but also great reward. The government may interpret students as an inventory of numbers which occupies a generous slice of administrative pie charts and data tables, but I never will. They are unique individuals and I am entrusted with the privilege of teaching them. How cool is that?

As we start a new school year, I am reminded how teaching is truly reciprocal. Students teach me so much about the world and about culture. They possess the hope and enthusiasm that many adults abandon with age. They teach me that my heart is never full enough to give and love and learn. Last year, when my grandmother passed away, a student made me a sympathy card. Earlier this year, my debate team discovered that they had possibly offended some students from another team, so they quickly went to Starbucks and purchased coffee for them. I can continue on, but I will tell you plainly that our students are preparing themselves for the challenges of adulthood (and leadership) more than even before. And I am blessed enough and proud enough, amid the papers and tests and standardized frenzies, to be their guide.


Dr. Crystal Hurd is a writer, reader, public school educator, and adjunct professor.  She is happily married with three beautiful Terriers (adopted from local shelters).  She is a certified book nerd who loves to read and research works involving faith, literature, art, and leadership.  You can visit her webpage , friend her on Facebook, (Crystal Sullivan Hurd) and follow her on Twitter:  @DoctorHurd and @hurdofficial.


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