It’s a flurry of finals! or, A Teacher’s Survival Guide to Final Exams

The first semester is winding to a close: we had our first round of examinations this morning, and it was (for me) uneventful and really rather pleasant. Even though I prefer not answering any questions at all during an exam, I found that my students were earnest and making effective observations, so I ended up having a few brief, but effective (and quiet) discussions with some of them as they analyzed short films as site passages.

I’ve invigilated exams which weren’t nearly as pleasant in the past. One year I had to send a student to the office for blatantly taking out a cellphone and texting during the final. Another time, a young person left the room in tears and I had to ask a colleague to take over while I went out and coaxed the individual back in to keep going (and ended up passing!). But exams don’t always cause dramatic moments.

Sometimes they’re downright amusing, though.

Some students will write lovely notes to me about their experience in the course, and others will leave me deliberate attempts at flattery or hopeful (and overblown) assessments of their own work. I’ve had some panic as they realized that they were not double-spacing through most of their work and attempt to start over — I did the same, during an English exam in grade 9, and ended up getting a lower percentage because I wasn’t able to finish, having taken the time to write everything. Consequently, I just tell my students to keep going from that point instead of redoing their work. It’s not funny-funny, but I enjoy those moments because they’re so familiar and repeat themselves with surprising frequency.

But the best experience I ever had was with a male senior who was wrapping up his final English credit, in my class. He’d finished his work with 15 or 20 minutes left of the time allotted, and so he decided to clean out his binder while he waited. I make it a general rule to leave the exams with the students until the time is up, so I hadn’t yet collected his package. When the clock’s hands finally rolled around to the prescribed time, he stood up with a grin and straight shoulders, ceremoniously tore his old notes in half, marched over to the recycling box, and dropped the papers in. He was about to leave the room when I asked him, “May I have your exam now?”

The look on his face when he realized that it had gone into the recycling bin along with all of his course notes . . . torn in two . . .

It took him a half an hour to tape the pages back together once he’d fished them out from among the remains of his course work. The good news, too, was that he had a sense of humour about it. We both couldn’t help but keep laughing at the ridiculousness of it. I’d never seen something like that happen before, and I’ve not yet seen it since.

Aside from the tension, insight, funnies, and relief that is palpable in the exam room, over 13 years of teaching I’ve developed a system for surviving the fast-turn-around flurry of marking before Semester 2 begins. It has to be fast, because marks are needed at this time of year for students applying to colleges and universities, and I have to leave time to prep for my new courses. So here’s what I do to get through it as painlessly as possible:

1) Keep Up on Other Marking. There is nothing worse than having a great pile of overdue marking to complete as well as the course culminating activities AND final exams. What is intended as a wrap-up week becomes a massive effort with lost sleep, carpal tunnel, hair torn out trying to keep track of all of the numbers, and a last-minute rush to throw together the report cards while second semester students file into the first class. Yeah, I’ve been there, multiple times. But a few years ago I actually got it together enough that I had everything else done before the exams started, and the freedom was . . . glorious. I’ve tried to keep it that way ever since.

2) Hydrate. I keep a beverage handy while I’m working, because sometime after the first hour, the eyes start to feel a bit dry and tired. At work, I tend to consume vast quantities of tea interspersed with pop — tea when I’m cold, pop when I’m hot — which also ensures that I’ll get up and moving every so often to go pee. Gets the blood moving! This year, I’ve introduced coffee to my system as well, to really stimulate the senses. At home, it’s also tea, or pop, or coffee, but if I’m feeling especially je-ne-sais-quois, I’ll pour a small glass of wine. Quelle sophistication! When I’m marking with the wine and a bit of music on, I feel like I’m a teacher in a movie. I can imagine that I’m marking with my feet up by a fireplace, or perhaps sitting in a study with rows of polished books, instead of cross-legged on my sofa with papers balanced precariously on my mounds of blankets. (In the summer, I get to take the exams out to the back yard and lounge in the sunlight while bugs alight in my drinks and the wind attempts to carry the work out from under my paperweights.)

3) Take Frequent BreaksSee above need to hydrate and its logical consequence. Plus, after a while, there’s a knot which forms in between the shoulder blades. A break which includes more than just a run to the bathroom — a walk around the school or my block, a shower if I’m at home, chatting with a friend or a colleague, or doing some other needed chore like reorganizing my desk — these things help to refresh a mind that has gone a bit numb with reading. But I have to be cautious because what starts as a break can quickly turn into the demon Procrastination.

Confession: my breaks also include gaming sessions on Facebook. CandyCrush, PetRescue, Words of Wonder, Farm Hero . . . plus a few more on my phone, only. I rationalize that the strategizing helps me to wake up. Or I’ll knit for a little while, because it’s mindless and tactile and gets my wrists moving in different directions. Again, reeeaaallly easy to turn into PROCRASTINATION. And that is bad.

4) Motivational Music & Movies. I can work in silence, and sometimes I prefer it. But I like to mix it up with upbeat, energizing tunes as white noise. Sometimes it’s just a matter of throwing on a movie or tv show that I’ve already watched, just for the soundtrack. But I find I can’t do audio books or podcasts or even the radio for long — if it’s the spoken word, my attention quickly drifts away from what I’m trying to get done and into the dialogue or what-have-you. Best preference is closing my classroom door so I can sing along with the lyrics, which requires little concentration and actually helps to keep me focused, at least until I get tired of it. And then it’s quiet for a bit. And so on.

5) Noms. I need snacks. Knowing this, today I asked hubby (and he obliged) for a large baggie filled with veggie slices: red and green bell peppers, carrots, celery, cucumbers, and grapes. Otherwise, I’m bound to head to Timmie’s to stock up on doughnuts. Or to the grocery store for chocolate. If you’re going to be stuck behind a desk for a while marking papers, it’s obviously better to eat healthier, but honestly, sometimes I just want the comfort foods: lardy, sugary, with tasty fillings and savoury toppings, deep-fried and finger-licking good . . .

6) Warm Feet. It’s difficult to concentrate with cold feet. I have my shoes at school, and slippers at home, and when even those fail to keep my tootsies happy (as they sometimes do when it’s 40 below outside), a stool or low table or whatever to put my feet up. I’ve attempted to mark papers with my feet in warm water but that leads back to having to pee, plus the added risk of dropping the papers in the water . . . And using my foot massager just ends up with messy marking.

In the summer, I get to just kick my shoes off and soak my lower limbs in beautiful hot sunshine. Yeah. It’s that good.

7) Frequent Self-Talk. “The sooner I get through this, the sooner I can do the report cards and be done with the semester.” It’s easy to get pulled into the lure of second semester planning, but I have learned through bitter experience not to fall for that trap. Also works if there isn’t also a massive pile of other marking to complete (see #1).

8) Master Copy. Preparing an answer sheet for the exam is an essential time-saver, as well as good practice. It’s easy enough to know what you’re looking for in short-answer or essay questions when you make the exam up, but the rationale can slip away in the time between photocopying it and collecting the students’ work at the end. And it really sucks when you, the teacher, can’t make your brain remember which multiple choice option was the right one. But it’s particularly necessary to have an answer sheet in case the worst case happens and you’re not able to mark your own exams or independent projects. It’s happened to me: one year, I was sick in bed with influenza for five days in a row and I couldn’t finish my own exam marking or my culminating activities. My amazing department colleagues stepped in and saved me, pooling my students’ work so I wouldn’t miss the report card deadline, but I remember slogging through phone calls and emails with them because I stupidly hadn’t made up an answer sheet. Lesson learned on that, too.

Pro tip: Make your answer sheet up at the same time that you make up the actual exam. Great time saver. (shifty eyes) Please don’t ask me if I actually did that this year, though . . . (scuffs foot against floor)

9) Stay Healthy. Get enough sleep, take your vitamins, dress for the weather, wash your hands, and remember to hydrate. That year I was sick in bed, even though my colleagues were fine with helping me, I felt just awful that they’d had to step in because I’d failed to keep myself healthy. We have to remember, fellow educators, that we are human and we can’t just keep going until all hours of the morning like we did when we were young. Rest must be had to think and write coherently and competently. Even multiple choice questions, true-and-false, and matching answers can be marked wrongly by mistake when you’re tired.

10) Mark In Pencil. I once had a student chortle when she saw that I’d marked with pencil, because as she said aloud in front of me, “Great, now I can change my marks before my mom sees them!” I switch it up a lot, using whatever writing utensils my daughter hasn’t yet sneaked out of my purse or school bag. When I’m marking a test that students will see, I like to use green for “go” instead of red for “bad” — red looks like blood, and in some countries, it’s considered unlucky or offensive — and lately, I’ve been on a highlighter kick because I can more quickly highlight errors than circling them. But there’s no worse feeling than marking something wrongly and having to make that “x” into a checkmark, or making an error in addition and having to switch the numbers up, or writing a comment and then the tired brain realizing that the words you wrote were the lyrics to a song and not the thought that was in your head to put down . . . much easier, in the end to eliminate these problems altogether by using a pencil. I prefer the standard No. 2 to mechanicals. I tend to press down a little harder than the average bear (in fact, I distinctly recall being told over and over in grade 1 to stop pressing so hard with my thick red pencil because I was ripping the pages of my notebook), and mechanicals constantly break on me. The other trouble that I find with pencils is keeping a sharpener handy. Again, I look to my second child for that . . .

So that’s it — that’s my survival guide, my little mental list written down for your enjoyment and edification. Now I’m off to Bedfordshire, as they say across the pond, hopefully not to dream about the damned exams AGAIN. Last night it was superheroes on a vacation tour that started in France, then went to Britain, and then into an underground mall in China. So weird . . .

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