A sudden blast of wind picked up three of my pupils' essays from the table and off they whirled towards the horizon. Worse still, they were from my "marked" pile. This was not some workload-reducing miracle.
I had overlooked the first and foremost rule of marking outside: always bring along a couple of clumpy textbooks to act as paperweights. The internet may be replacing the dead tree as our students’ go-to research resource, but a few cobwebbed old tomes still win hands down when it comes to battening down the hatches during a spell of al fresco marking.
It was a schoolboy error. Most teachers chase after homework, but not always literally. On this occasion, it meant running after those essays before they escaped our premises and sailed off to almost certain oblivion on the A40.
I really should have known better. I have been a proud member of the outdoor marking community for many years, so I really ought to know by now that – even on the clearest and calmest of days – a surprisingly strong current of air will maliciously whip across the table at some stage. I should have prepared accordingly. I felt ashamed.
Marking in the sunshine makes it less painful
I should have also known that it would be futile to try slamming a hand down on the escaping pile. This merely slopped coffee over the perfectly innocent essays faithfully remaining there, though at least the spillage meant that the remaining pieces were all too saturated to consider any further attempts at escape. Also, come to think of it, the coffee stains helped draw one student's attention away from the remains of a swatted fly, resting in pieces in the middle of her conclusion.
Yet despite the hazards, I find summer-term outdoor marking to be easily the best way of turning this aspect of the job into a positive experience. Setting up shop at an outdoor table after school is one possible venue, as there’s always a pleasing, recuperative air of peace around the premises when the kids have gone home. Another option is to stop at a pub garden on the way home, maybe with a couple of our marking friends. This was certainly a popular choice for some of us in my early, flat-renting and garden-less years. It was not sad at all.
Generally, however, I now opt for my own garden if possible. Here I can happily set up and take in the sensory delights of the season. I can mark to the sound of birds singing, to the smell of burning meat on our proud neighbour’s new barbecue, sometimes to the distant symphony of adolescents playing and hurling fruity abuse at each other at the local rec. Unbeatable.
A regular supply of tea or coffee obviously helps. This is occasionally replaced (especially at weekends) by a beer or a glass or two of wine. If a couple of drinks do have an influence on my marking it probably doesn’t matter all that much, as I suspect I’m already about 10 per cent more generous when marking outside. (Just to reassure anyone, I am not an exam-board marker, though I imagine it’s a similar story there.)
I might also put on my own personal and ever-evolving playlist of “Desert Island Marking” music. With a small beer at hand and some timeless Ella Fitzgerald performing a duet with a local wood pigeon, it can actually start to feel like being on holiday. Well, almost.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire