The Seven Stages of Grief (for Springtime Paper-Grading)

As a creative writing and senior English teacher, spring comes as both a blessing and a boon. On the one hand, I love the warm weather and bright blooms of April outside; on the other, I am often inside grading papers. While I’ll acknowledge that I did this to myself with my choice of career – accountants have tax season, teachers have paper-grading season – I’ll also share that, with the approach of year’s end and the glorious lead-in to summer vacation, comes the inevitable period when all of us teachers of writing must once again grapple with the seven stages of grief . . .

The first stage, Shock, comes when we must face the fact that we will actually have to read, mark, and grade the elaborate writing assignments that we dreamed up for our students to complete. These long-term projects include documented essays that may have incorporated annotated bibliographies, note cards, outlines, peer reviews, and drafts throughout the year, culminating in final drafts of ten pages or more, which we hope (desperately) will be well-written and thoroughly researched with sources appropriately cited— just like we taught.

After that, Denial is our first best bet in facing this shock. This comes when we look at that big stack of papers from dozens of students, and refuse to begin. There’s time, of course. “Certainly no one expects these back quickly,” we tell ourselves. There are other tasks to be completed right now: emails to be answered, forms to be filled out.

Anger sets in shortly thereafter when we take a breath, sigh deeply, and take on the first few papers. Here, our worst fears are revealed to be true: writing errors, awkward sentences, bizarre word choices, rambling, incorrect citations, even outright plagiarism. This third stage is marked by an unseemly realization that the whole stack, with a few exceptions, will contain the problems that we see in those first few.

Bargaining is a move forward but not much. In response to the overwhelming self-doubt about whether we can face the whole stack, there’s the plan to grade a few papers each day, which may even include a chart or countdown. And in the backs of our minds, there are also faint ideas about “losing” the papers. We could set them on top of the car, and forget, and drive off . . . “I guess I’ll just have to give everyone a hundred,” we could sheepishly propose. (The sad thing is: no one would complain.)

Depression comes about a third of the way through the stack. This feeling of hopeless bitterness comes from marking errors that a fourth-grader shouldn’t make, like not capitalizing the first letter of a name or place, but also from discovering prevalent instances of plagiarism in some papers. “Am I wasting my time,” we ask ourselves as we slog through the intellectual mud. “Did anybody learn anything . . . ?”

Testing occurs when we face another fact: grades have to be turned in to finalize the term. This paper is one of the major grades for the fourth grading-period, and it has to be in there. This is the point when we wish that paper-grading could be like an ’80s movie montage: some invigorating song plays and when it’s over, we’re done!

Acceptance finally arrives with a few days left and a few papers to go. By this time, we’ve read some good papers, and a few really good ones, and we’ve gotten over the insult of having a student whose writing lacks even basic grammar to copy-and-paste a whole section from an article in The Atlantic. “No, I haven’t wasted my time,” we’ve surmised by this point. “Some of them seemed to get it.” All that remains is to hand them back and be done.

No path is without its brambles. Along with the perks of a career in teaching English and writing, which include reading great literature and plenty of time off, come the inevitable bouts of struggling against carelessness, procrastination, and avoidance. I can’t say that I blame the students though: when I was young, I’d’ve rather been doing other things, too. But despite the best intentions of the teachers who create these long-term writing assignments to ennoble and enlighten college-bound his-schoolers, this cyclical conundrum repeats itself . . . annually . . . and without fail.


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