The dark side of the whiteboard - Always look before you tick

25th February 2011 at 00:00

If I had to note all the pointless cruelties that teachers are subjected to, top of my list would be work sampling. As a means of torture, it has got to be on par with water-boarding. There is nothing like an email from the deputy head, giving 48-hour notice of a key stage 3 "book trawl" to make you feel like you are drowning. It is a brutal method: there is no physical evidence and it leaves you gasping for air. The CIA could do with giving it a whirl.

Just before we broke for half term, our SMT decided to do a full book trawl across Years 7, 8 and 9. I would like to think they were fishing for underachieving pupils, but really they were out to harpoon underperforming staff. Don't be fooled by the courteous three-minute warning: the 48 hours is a nicety and they know it.

You would have to be a superhero to track down and mark some 60-odd exercise books that haven't seen a red pen since December. The fact that you made a strategic decision to shelve your KS3 marking in order to prioritise GCSE controlled assessments and the A2 coursework counts for nothing; my school values independent learners, not independent staff. We are expected to mark consistently throughout the academic year, regardless of exam pressures.

Therefore book monitoring episodes like this prompt futile and frenzied marking; we blindly tick pupils' work, desperately hoping we are not endorsing rogue apostrophes, misspelt homophones or worse.

Some subjects have it easier. History seems to get away with murder. Their protozoan marking policy consists of using the words "poor", "satisfactory", "good" or "excellent", which the pupils themselves have to cross-reference to the rubric glued in the front of their books. "Good" supposedly means they can refer to an historical fact or remember the date of a battle, whereas in fact it is simply shorthand for "write a bit more and use a sharper pencil". Sadly, English teachers don't get off so lightly. My boss (think Mary Queen of Shops with testicles) is a perfectionist: she insists that we formatively mark every other piece of work with two stars and a wish. Mine being that I had done a degree in history. The two stars indicate the assessment focuses the child has attained and the wish indicates their target. As you can imagine, this kind of diligent marking takes time. I usually tackle it at home, where my husband helps me out by watching Have I Got News for You on Dave.

Nor was the book trawl the only pointless waste of time this week. I was also observed. So when I wasn't ticking books, I was laminating resources. This lesson was going to be the dog's bollocks: it had everything: PPT, music, VAK activities, opportunities for stretch and challenge; it even had a plenary. Short of bringing out Justin Bieber in his boxers, I couldn't have done anything more. My whiteboard groaned under the weight of aspirational objectives. Everything went according to plan until my observer checked for pupil progression. When she flicked through Amy Dobson's work, she looked unimpressed. Next day, I discovered why. I had put a red tick and a smiley face on Amy's simile homework, whereas Lady Gaga's "I wanna take a ride on your disco stick" is in fact a metaphor.

At least I have learnt my lesson: never trust Year 9 girls and always look before you tick.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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