Pavlovian butterflies

5th August 2005 at 01:00
Marking exam papers on a Hebridean island might sound idyllic, but the job is not without its stresses, says Jennifer Baker

Well, it has come round again; payback time for opting out of the rat race and living the "good life" on an idyllic island off the coast of Scotland.

I am exam marking!

It's not just the mind-numbing tediousness of marking 500-plus examination papers but it is a return to the life I left behind two years ago. I can feel my pulse quickening as I drive to Glasgow to catch a plane to Manchester for the standardising meeting. These old familiar feelings return - stress. And yet it's not stressful. I can mark as and when I like.

There are hundreds of teachers marking and doing a full-time job. (How on earth do they do it?) No, my responses to this meeting are of the Pavlov's dog variety.

Butterflies - forgotten over the past two years - return with a vengeance.

I don't think I was fully aware of the stress of my job at the time, but it's the banging of the head against a brick wall syndrome - you don't realise how painful it is till you stop. Navel-gazing, however, is to be avoided. The job has to be done, and I arrive back with a bag full of instructions to start the long haul of a month's marking.

The thing is to be disciplined about it - not to give in to the blandishments of a walk in the hills or an extra yoga class or helping out in the island school or vacuuming or ironing or anything rather than marking.

A daily quota must be covered or dire consequences will have to be faced.

Last year I contemplated losing all the papers at sea, but, do you know, you can be arrested for that? Some things are apparently worse than marking.

Some days I wonder if I can exceed my quota and give myself time off. It never really works like that. The daily target is seldom reached, and the midnight oil is frequently burned in the last week. Fortunately, it's still light at midnight up here so I don't have that horrible feeling of being the only person in the world still awake. If I open my office window and call quietly, I waken all the oyster catchers who set up a great racket before settling down to sleep again. It's comforting and helps to relieve the boredom.

There are downsides to this, though, and, surprisingly, it's not the 228 essays on "my dreams and ambitions". They are written with sincerity and a great deal of excitement. Rather, it's the one or two papers which almost reduce me to tears and make me wonder all over again why we have to put every pupil through what is obviously torture for them.

One paper merely stated on the poetry section: "I can't do this. It's too hard." Another said about the same question: "I can't do comparisons. I never could. So there!" Is that despair at its rawest? I think so. Why oh why do they have to do it? They are clear about what they are good at.

There is not a mention of literature in their essays on dreams and ambitions. Teach them the joys of poetry and the feelings aroused by good writing - don't spoil it all by examining them on it.

The other downside is the centre that doesn't do administration properly and invites murderous thoughts. Who are these people who can't arrange papers alphabetically and don't seem to know who's doing the exam and who's not? I get paid by the script - not by the hour - so four hours of sorting scripts is not paid and changes me into a person I don't want to be. When I did the job, I made sure everything was as perfect as possible in order not to upset the examiner and disadvantage my pupils.

Strangely, the poor admin has the opposite effect on me. I hope these students do particularly well as they obviously have a problem elsewhere.

Marking papers is a bit like childbirth. You forget the pain as soon as the cheque appears and volunteer to do it again next year.

An afterthought. They say GCSEs favour girls because there is more extended writing and less multiple choice. I can't be bothered with all that nonsense - get the boys to write more is what I say, but that is the subject of another article. I mention it only to say my plane to Manchester was run by an all-female team - the pilot and co-pilot and the cabin staff - all of them young enough to have done GCSEs. So perhaps I'm doing some good here and not just earning money to subsidise my remote lifestyle.

Jennifer Baker lives on an island in the Inner Hebrides.

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