How I Stopped Complaining and Learned to Love Marking… sort of.

Hello everyone! 

I hope you’re all okay - a lot of my friends have contracted COVID recently - it’s a bit like the Fast and Furious movie franchise at this point, just when you think it’s all done and dusted, it revs its engines and Vin Diesel sits on your chest. Or something, it’s early so my metaphors may be a little off!

And did we all enjoy World Book Day? For my international friends, I realise that we celebrate World Book Day at a strange time; don't worry, you didn't miss it for your country! Did you read my post about it? Did you listen to my podcast about it? Did you even know that I had a podcast? Well, I do. It’s: Mr M’s Musings: The Podcast - a title that my wife has suggested is a little off-topic as it doesn’t actually mention education or teaching anywhere. So please tell your friends about it!

Speaking of my international readers (there are a few), I am aware that my recent posts have felt a little England-heavy, and any reference to legislation is purely to English legislation (not even British, so devolved is the system over here!). Rest assured, the advice and tips will work wherever you are in the world. Also, I'd love to hear from you! How does teaching and marking differ in Sri Lanka? or Onatrio? or the Netherlands? Leave a comment; educate me!

Anyway, neither COVID nor World Book Day is what I wanted to talk to you about today. Today I am bringing my Book Marking series to a close. If you have been reading these past few weeks (I know, a regular release schedule!? What on earth is going on? I’ll tell you what - time-blocking and self-discipline!), you will know about why we mark (the history and reasons behind marking books not only in England but across the world); the amount that we mark; and ways to mark efficiently. Well, today I am going to share with you the most important part of the puzzle.

It’s all very well knowing the why (because we need to know if the children are learning, and we will be held accountable) and how (coded feedback, child marking clubs, only marking what is essential) and even the when (ideally during the lesson, if not immediately that afternoon) and the where (in school, at the tables - never at home). However, without a really good drive to mark, it will still feel like a chore. So this week, I am going to break down how I learned to love marking.

That’s not an exaggeration either. I genuinely enjoy the marking process now. Even back when I was Phase leader and was sometimes marking my own class and assisting with the marking of the whole of Years four and five, this process allowed me to not be frustrated by it.

Not possible you say? Read on…

Pretty much everything I am going to tell you today has come from a book written by Brian Tracy called Eat that Frog! It’s an anti-procrastination book written primarily for people who work in an office and want to get promoted. I’ve read a lot of these books because an awful lot of what happens in an office is directly applicable to the classroom. The only real difference is that the social politics of the classroom are easier to manage!

Eat That Frog! - Brian Tracy

I read this book and the administrative side of my teaching life changed, pretty much overnight (it was more like over a week - I did have to read the book after all!). I’ve recently re-read it and have distilled it down to just ten easy-to-apply rules (I was going to use ‘life hacks’ but they’re more than that). Follow these rules, make reasonable adjustments where necessary, then share them with your friends and colleagues. Especially those who are stressed out about marking to the point where they are considering leaving teaching.

Here we go…

Rule 1


Albert Einstein once implied that a tidy desk is the sign of a lazy mind[1]. Now, he was a very clever man but I’m afraid he got this one wrong. Clutter is chaotic and our brains do not like chaos [2] (that’s the reason we see shapes in clouds[3]). 

Step one then is to tidy your desk. But don’t just sweep things into drawers and call it quits. You need to actually tidy your desk. Have nothing out on your desk that is not needed. I suggest you only need a pencil case (or pot) with a marking pen, pencil, pencil sharpener, a green, orange, red and purple felt-tip (I’ll explain later…), a notebook (ideally an A4 one) or planner and, because there’s probably nowhere else for it, your keyboard or laptop. I’ll also accept a pot plant because greenery has been proven to create a calming atmosphere [4]. But that’s it.

Stationery and things can go tidily in a top drawer (if you’re lucky enough to have one) but really, if it doesn’t fit in the pencil case that’s on your desk, do you really need it?

Tidying my desk, clearing it of clutter, was one of the most difficult things I ever did as a teacher. It was also one of the most beneficial. Coming in to a room and seeing a clear, defined working and thinking space was so calming and invigorating. It absolutely must be done before anything else will work effectively.

If you are one of the unfortunate few who do not have a desk, then having a dedicated bag or backpack will achieve the same results. You want only the essentials and you want them to hand quickly. Incidentally, always make sure you have a pen you can mark with on you somewhere. In a pocket, attached to a lanyard, anywhere that you can quickly grab it and mark.

Rule 2
Become a list person

During my undergrad years, I was quite happy-go-lucky (we English Lit. students had that luxury. While my Business Studies friends were cramming textbooks and case studies, I was sipping tea and discussing how Jane Eyre was similar to Mr Toad). That was until it came to my dissertation. Then I would start to panic because I had no idea how I was going to fit everything in and pass.

This is when I was introduced to the wonderful world of lists. 

There are lots of ways lists can help to reduce stress in teaching - my podcast this week explores a few of them but I am going to focus on the oft underrated To Do list here.

At the end of every day, literally, the last five minutes before you go home (this is important to developing a good habit - make this list then leave the building, no exceptions; no excuses. List then leave!), go to your notebook, rule a line under everything and write tomorrow’s date.

Underneath that, list everything that needs to be done. It might look something like this:

Tuesday 13th March

  • mark table 4’s books
  • Photocopy sheet for English
  • Email the zoo re: trip
  • Call Zoe’s mum re: swimming kit
  • Prepare topic books for staff meeting on Thursday
  • Read hand out from last week’s staff meeting
  • Update targets and levels on tracker
  • Check-in with TA re: table 2’s division

There will probably be more if it’s the first time - I’m finding it very difficult to remember the sorts of things I used to put on my list!

Anyway, once you have done that, remember those felt-tips I said you needed? This is where you use them. Colour-code your list. You can choose how you do this. 

I used red for anything that had to be done first. Usually marking those final books and any lesson prep that hadn’t already been completed. These were things that needed to be addressed before school had even begun. I used orange for things that needed to be done ideally before lunchtime and green for things that could wait until the end of the day (or even pushed to the next day). Throughout the day, things might be added to the list and appropriately coloured. If anything came up that was immediately urgent, it would be added to the list and highlighted purple.

Tuesday 13th March

  • mark table 4’s books
  • Photocopy sheet for English
  • Email the zoo re: trip
  • Call Zoe’s mum re: swimming kit
  • Prepare topic books for staff meeting on Thursday
  • Read hand out from last week’s staff meeting
  • Update targets and levels on tracker
  • Check-in with TA re: table 2’s division

This was left open on my desk ready for the next day. Now, if some of you are thinking that walking in to a list of chores first thing in the morning seems like a very negative way to start the day, I was with you. But here’s the crazy thing… it actually had the opposite effect. 

By walking in and seeing that I only had one or two immediate things to do before school started, I was able to prioritise my time. Perhaps I was on early gate duty that day, fine, then I would aim to get the red list items completed and know that the orange items could wait until a little later on (I also became much better at evaluating which items should be orange and which should be green).

More extraordinary though, I found I had so much more time in the mornings! This, however, was not exclusively the list. The extra time was also down to the judicious use of rule 3.

Rule 3
You are not alone!

Most of us will have access to a teaching assistant, learning support worker, magic-person-who-helps-us for some or, if we’re very lucky, all of the day. Share your list with these people! Better yet, have a conversation with them explaining why there will be a list just for them, or their initials will be beside a certain task on your list. You don’t have to do everything on your own. If there is photocopying to be done, let your TA do it - they’re more than capable! If there are a few books left to mark but you have to meet with a parent, let the TA mark the books. Remember last week when I said that every adult in the room should know the learning outcomes and thus be able to successfully mark a book? This is why.

And don’t feel like you’re using the TA; this is not a master-servant situation. As I said, they are professionals. My TAs have always been keen to help out with the list, mostly because it leads to them being more involved in the day-to-day running of the classroom.

Never underestimate the importance of agency.

Plus, part of the Teaching Standards (in England) specifically mention deploying school staff ”effectively”[5], so there’s that. Honestly, I cannot imagine a scenario where support staff will complain about being more involved. If they do, take some time to explain the logic behind it (if that fails, tell them to talk to me - I’ll even give you my phone number: 020 7097 6760, that’s how confident I am that this works!). 

That’s now two of you getting through that list. The red items will be gone in seconds. A lot of the orange ones may well be disappearing as well.

But that’s not all…

You know those children who are always hanging around before school? The ones who always try to come in early? Use them. Give them a job that is appropriate to their age group. I use to have a bulletin board with Elf* Jobs listed and a space for them to write their names.

These would often be the more secretarial jobs from the orange list - stick things into books, cut up worksheets, you know the sort of thing. Some required training (like using the paper cutter), so those jobs could only be done by children who had attended the training (run once a term by me in a lunchtime). 

Your list may be long (at first, it won’t stay long forever, I promise) but it can be chunked and delegated.

Rule 4
Learn to say NO.

This is a tough one but it is essential to your mental wellbeing. It goes hand-in-hand with a well-curated list because that list is your allocation of time. Always remember, as much as we love teaching, and many of us bend over backwards for the children, we are employees, not acolytes. Your school buys your time not your soul! And time, dear reader, is finite.

In England, teachers are contracted to work for 195 days of the year. That’s a couple minutes shy of six and a half hours a day (1265 hours ÷ 195), Monday to Friday, not including lunch breaks (you don’t get paid for your lunch break, so please make sure you take it!)[6]

The teaching day takes up roughly five of those hours, leaving you with around ninety minutes to get everything else done.

Applying the rules in this list will allow you to stay on top of everything you need to do within that time - remember, you should not be taking work home with you. More on that in rule five.

If you are asked to do something extra, add it to your list but ask yourself the following questions:

  • When will this need to be completed by? - you might need to shift around some priority tasks.
  • How detailed does it need to be? - there is no value in presenting a fully coloured, 24-page document if they only wanted a rough estimate on the back of a napkin.
  • Is there a reason that it can’t be done by someone else (unless this is obvious)? - why you? You have other things to do.
  • How will my career/class/life benefit from completing this task? - sometimes you have to make sacrifices to rule five; only you can decide when this is appropriate. 

If you don’t know the answer to these questions, ask the person giving you the task. Explain that you are trying to get better at time management (to make you a better and more effective teacher) and it would be really helpful for you to know.

If you can’t see a way to complete the additional task, and it is not urgent, say no. 

Forgive me an anecdote…

I was working as Phase Leader for Lower Key Stage 2, teaching Year 6, and performing several Assistant Head tasks. Parents’ evening was coming up and the teaching staff were told to write a report for each child to give to parents. This was the middle of the academic year, so it was not even the end of year report (not that it would have mattered, the legal obligation to provide a report - and there is one - falls to the Headteacher, not the staff) [7]). I went to see the Head and explained that I would not be writing any reports for my class, individual or otherwise.

She was not happy with this and pretty much demanded that I did so.

I explained that I only had a set amount of time available to me and showed her my list of things to do. I pointed out to her that, if the reports, which were not statutory, merely traditional for the school, absolutely had to be written, they would take about three hours to complete to a satisfactory degree. Then I asked her which items she would be removing from my list to accomplish this.

I would be lying if I said that she was overcome with reason and declared there and then to abolish pointless report writing. She did not. But she relented and accepted that I simply didn’t have the time to write them. Appallingly, I was told that I did not have to write the reports but that I mustn’t let any of the other staff members know otherwise they wouldn’t do it either!

Naturally, the first thing I did was tell the teachers within my professional duty of care not to write them, and to say that it was under my advice if questions were asked.

Within the week, the once-grand tradition of pointless mid-year reports was abandoned forever.

I’m not telling you this to show off, it was a terrifying experience and perhaps not one I would have attempted had I not already been teaching for nine years at the time but it shows the benefit of rule four.

I’ve used this approach many times, most of them far less incendiary, either to allow me to readjust my own priorities or to effectively and professionally question the efficacy of the additional task. It’s a bit like riding a bike - the first few times, it can be scary but eventually, you get used to it and it becomes second nature.

Don’t forget to add the new task to your list! And don’t feel bad if it becomes the only red or purple thing on it. Sometimes, a single, important item will take most of your time. That’s fine. Adjust your list and delegate. You’ll manage.

All of this has been building to the most important rule of all…

Rule 5
Go home

Time to quote Brian Tracy directly. He was once asked how to achieve the correct balance between work and home life. His answer was:

“How often does a tightrope walker balance when on the highwire?”

The answer of course is all the time. There will never be a simple solution to your work/life balance but I can offer you a general rule of thumb. Follow these rules and my marking ‘hacks’ to ensure that you are out of the door at a set time every day except one (bear with me). That time could be 6pm, if you come in at around 8am (that’s more than six and a half hours, but, like I said, bear with me…); if you come in at 7am, it could be 5pm. That’s still an eight-hour day (remember, the lunch hour doesn’t count), which is an hour and a half more than you’re paid for. Over five days, that’s seven and a half hours. That’s almost an entire day every week you are working for free. And that’s not even considering the amount of time you will spend thinking about school and your class’s needs at home (even if you take nothing home; you’re a teacher, you can never truly turn it off).

I wish I could say to you work to contracted hours, or walk out of that door at the stroke of 4pm every day, but that’s not realistic. Even for me! What I am saying is that you owe it to yourself to pick one day a week to go home early. And I mean follow-the-kids-out-of-the-gate early. Timetable it in. Don’t apologise for it. Don’t take any work home. Work it into your lists, hell, make it a red item on your list for the day!

You need time to be you. 

Sometimes, things happen and you will have to stay late (parents’ evenings are a good example) but remember, these are built into your contracted hours; they are not additional to them. So, if you are at school until 9pm for two days that week, go home early for the other three.

If you have been asked to go on a residential trip (and you totally should, they’re awesome), that’s a 24-hour workday for up to five days. Talk with your Headteacher to negotiate some of that time back. It’s worth at least a day off in lieu.

It can be scary when you first adopt this practice - it was for me (I had several relapses into poor time management and procrastination) - but I promise, in the long run, it is so beneficial to your mental health and your profession. 

The most important rule is the lists, if you take nothing else away from this post, do the lists. In fact, they’re so key that my podcast this week is all about lists and how they can be used to keep track of your life. You don’t need a fancy planner, you just need a cheap notebook. I’m off to record that podcast now, in fact, so if you’ve enjoyed reading this (admittedly rather long) blog post, maybe give it a listen.

If nothing else, take comfort in the fact that the majority of the school year is behind you! You can do this. You’re awesome.

Carl Headley-Morris

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*I’ll explain ‘Elf’ another day…

References for this post

[1] the actual quote is: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”


[3] Rieth, C. (2015). Pareidolia. In Encyclopedia of Planetary Landforms (pp. 1519–1521).

[4] Chang, C.-Y., & Chen, P.-K. (2005). Human Response to Window Views and Indoor Plants in the Workplace. In HortScience (Vol. 40, Issue 5, pp. 1354–1359).

[5]“Teachers’ Standards: Guidance for school leaders, school staff and governing bodies”, p.13,

[6]Long, R. (2019, July 19). The School Day and Year (England). House of Commons Library.

[7] Great Britain. (2005). The Education (Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2005.