Tutor tales – what is it like to be a marker of systems thinking work?

‘Belief is the place from which true change originates’ – Margaret Wheatley

I was inspired by a student to write this. It relates to my experience of being a tutor on the postgraduate systems thinking courses with the Open University. This narrative is not endorsed by the OU and is not an official narrative for the OU. It relates to my own personal experiences only and should be taken as such. Now I’ll begin…….

It’s a beautiful day outside. The birds have been singing since 4am, the sun is shining, and I can smell cut grass wafting in on the gentle breeze coming through the window. We have been in lockdown for so long and now we have been set free and every minute outside feels like a heavenly hour. But, I’m inside, at my computer with a recent batch of EMAs (end of module assessments). The time scale for marking is tight. I’m aware of the pressure and how marking will dominate my schedule in the fortnight ahead.

Students are sometime quite nervous when they submit their EMAs. It’s a relief, I’m sure but that wait for the result can feel like a lifetime. I know, I did all of my qualifications with the OU and the minute you press ‘submit’ the nerves are there until the day the result comes through.

Marking is an honour. You get to see the finished product at a point in the student’s journey when their learning is really coming together. I get quite excited to read what is in front of me and I settle down into it quickly. And then the nerves kick in. Am I interpreting their work properly? Am I interpreting the module team’s requirements properly? I have the students’ futures in my hands and I am acutely aware of it. I read and mark and read and mark and read again. I check and double check. If I read an EMA at 9am in the morning I am fresh and bright eyed and I need strategies to keep that freshness going for every single one I read. I break between every single assessment, go for a brief walk, sit in the garden, listen to a favourite song or speak to a friend on the phone. Every 3-4 EMAs I have a long break and maybe go to the gym or to the pool and in the jacuzzi (usually all three) – anything to keep my mind relaxed and fresh.

I said it is a honour to read the work and I really mean it. Every time I get a glimmer of systems concepts really sinking in. Every time I see a student debate their understanding, I see a richness of thought that makes them shine. No matter what grade they get, every student brings something unique and interesting to the table.

Being a systems practitioner myself, I know how the journey feels when you are learning systems thinking. I know about the uncertainty, the doubt, the worry that you have misinterpreted something completely. I have been through the courses I now tutor on and I know the emotional journey very well. I want to help my students through it, just like I was helped through it, and I worry that I haven’t done enough. I worry if I have caused any misunderstandings along the way. I worry that I haven’t given enough support, nurtured enough or done my very best to ensure they have the best chance of success…………..then I read again. Yes, again. An EMA goes through several iterations of reading – at the beginning of day, at the end of a day, on a weekday, on a weekend, before lunch, after lunch, before tea, after tea, any time. I do everything I can to make sure I assess it appropriately. Of course, it isn’t me who assigns a final grade. The Module Result panel does that, but my contribution has to be right. I couldn’t live with myself if it wasn’t.

Tutoring isn’t something you do for money. I could tutor on 6 different courses and still not match the salary I had when I was in my late 20s, let alone now (I’m in my 50s now). Most tutors I know don’t do the work for money but because they believe in the subject area and have a passion for helping others learn. On the systems thinking courses, most tutors are practitioners themselves. Some, like me, have come through the courses themselves. It is a team where I can truly say there is a high level of dedication and a desire to do the best we can. It is just as well really, because a tutor’s journey can be a lonely one. Sitting with your allocation of marking, knowing what is at stake for each and every student.

When a student hits the ‘submit’ button the nerves kick in. When the tutor presses the ‘submit results’ button the nerves kick in. We’re with you! Every step of the way.


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