When I was training to be a teacher back in the mid 80s, I remember marking my first set of (Economics) essays. I was excited to see what my first batch of students had written – had they understood the concepts, could they apply it, what original ideas could they come up with..? Sadly, I was to be less than overwhelmed (underwhelmed?). As time went on, I found marking a drudgery, something that went with the job, about as interesting as invigilating an exam (which, believe me, is mindbogglingly tedious). No doubt this was all my fault.
Over time I developed a system of speed reading scripts, and when I analysed my marking comparing grades given when I read every word, deliberated long about the marks, to when I sped read, there was no difference. After a few years, I was speed reading, maybe going back and picking apart more intricate and interesting paragraphs, but I found the human brain could actually read very fast, keep alert and do a better job than when you painstakingly went over things line by line, word by word and became distracted. Get through it fast, in one sitting, and keep the standard consistent. In the end, that is the job of marking. I suspect most seasoned teachers and academics do likewise. There are just not enough hours in the day otherwise. You have all this prep to do, and a million other admin tasks.
And so I arrive at the story of my former History teacher, Peter Sibley. A legend in his own time, he had played a good standard of rugby in England (captaining the Bath team in the 1960s: “Peter Sibley was the first to develop the ethos for fast, attacking rugby – an ethos that still lives on in today’s team.” says the Bath Rugby club website). He was also the school 1st XI cricket coach, international sports tour guy and Housemaster. Back in the late 70s, he was probably in his early 40s, wore a cool leather jacket, had a nice manner about him, and turned up to every lesson about 5 minutes late. He was entertaining, things were not too high pressure and everyone enjoyed his classes. I saw him lose his cool only once, after a boarder went around smashing various windows in a fit of what must have been post punk teenage rage. Peter took the lad by the scruff of the neck, his own face turning a brilliant shade of purple as he marched the boy off to the Headmaster’s office.
Around this time, we students suspected Mr Sibley was not exactly reading every word of our essays. The clue was in the fact that as we compared each other’s scripts, every one of us had a neat little red tick on the bottom of each page, with no comments made whatsoever throughout the pieces of work. At the end was a simple comment and a mark. We got to wondering if our history teacher was actually reading the work at all. One of us braver types decided to test the theory. He would put in inappropriate words in the middle of the odd paragraph. We waited with baited breath as to the outcome. Would these be spotted, crossed out, and the poor student made a fool of in next history class?
Nope. A simple red tick at the bottom of each page and a plain mark at the end resulted, as always. OK, maybe he just missed that occasional word, we surmised? Let’s put in some things that are plainly obvious to anyone (who is at least scanning the work). They were not picked up either. Eventually, we started putting in whole paragraphs such as “you’re not really reading this are you sir” and “old man Sibley is asleep” and other entirely non historical elements to our essays. Nothing was spotted.
And so, we lost our faith in the academic validity of our history scores. But we did not turn him in, or complain (as perhaps the modern competitive parent may have done). It did not put us off, we worked away and all got good grades, and we turned out OK. I look back on this and smile, but when I became a teacher about 10 years later, I made sure I read every paragraph (if not every word), and although I may have sped read (and still do, to this day), I do look out for the odd silly phrase, lest someone is trying one on. Working at a media business now, I can proof read with the best of them and spot a careless error at 10 paces.
For now, this little history lesson ends here. However, in a follow up post, I will tell you what happened 15 years later when I ended up helping out Mr Sibley with a hockey tour to Singapore, which may provide karma to the above.