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The Perils of Late Work and How to Make it Count

The deadline for a project or paper is fast approaching and as we wait eagerly for our inboxes to fill, we are hopefully optimistic that those one or two students who don't turn work in on time chronically will get it right THIS time.

After all, I had a conference or two with the child and we made a time management strategy and I may have even spoken to their parents already.

Then finally, the day is here... 32 out of 34 submitted. Sigh. So what do we do now?

My old inclination would have been to dock the students points for every day the paper or project was late resulting in a zero at some point. Or the zero would be issued in the grade book until the work was submitted, (you know as a motivating carrot to force them to do the work). If work was submitted too late, the zero was never removed. (Which creates all kinds of other issues with averages and the like).

Both of these older methods of punishing students for their late work were never very successful and ultimately only created a discrepancy in communicating mastery. After all, some of my brightest students were the ones that didn't do the work.

"Why?" I keep asking myself. Is it my work? Is it the expectation? What?

Over time, I've realized that there must be something bigger at work here. For example, I have one very bright student in my AP literature class who can't meet deadlines but when he turns the work in, it is brilliantly written. I spoke with him and his mother on portfolio night and the way I chose to frame it was to call him deliberate, not slow which is the word his mom used at first.

Slow has a negative connotation where deliberate sounds more intentional and could be positive. After all, if more of my students were deliberate there would be less carelessness committed.

But there is more to the story. As I've gotten to know the student, he is deathly afraid of not turning something in that is perfect. He toils over words: the way they are put together, the specific diction of his choices, and then the depth in which they convey meaning.

Ultimately, he is doing exactly what I want him to be doing, it just takes him longer than other students.

As I have moved away from grades, one thing I've noticed is that learning takes time and for different children, it takes different amounts of time. That doesn't mean they aren't learning.

That doesn't even mean they are purposely not working. It just means they have a different process. Students like this require more time and there is no reason not to give it to them. The goal is by the end of the year that he will have achieved mastery in the skills and standards of the class. Not necessarily right now when the teacher determines it should be ready.

Of course, there are other kids who will directly tell you they are "lazy" or that they just didn't feel like doing something. I've spoken at length to a few of my students like this and we've tried to workaround. Some are afraid to look stupid. Some don't see the value. Some just can't get organized. It's our job to first figure out what we're dealing with, dig deeper.

So here are some ways to deal with the late work conundrum:

  • Evaluate the situation. Is the student a chronic situation or is this a one-time thing? Because the answer to this question really will determine where you go next. If the student is going through something right now that you may not be aware of, make sure to talk to the student before you start making accusations.

  • Evaluate the quality of the work assigned. I know teachers don't like to think that what they are doing can be part of the problem, but perhaps there's just too much or it isn't worth the time. Sometimes, we can do more quality than quantity and the students get more out of it. Either way, there are solutions that can help every student be successful. Know what and why you are assigning work and be flexible with some students.Â

  • Don't think in terms of fairness. Justice isn't a part of mastery. Every child needs something different to be successful and we need to provide each child with what he or she needs to find achievement. It's called differentiation.

  • It's important to teach students about deadlines and being responsible but at what expense? We can teach these lessons in a multitude of ways. We shouldn't punish students or penalize them if it takes them longer. We need to work with them to find out why and then help them make a plan to correct it.

  • Some students are extremely disorganized and what we need to do it teach them to manage their time better. Perhaps asking them to check in weekly for a while can be one way to ensure they are staying on track. One student this year, who has had a track record of not doing work has turned it around because I took the time to call him in, tell him I noticed, and then recommend that we make a weekly date to check-in. It wasn't a punishment but rather an accountability check-in. He just had to stop by to tell me what he was working on and if he felt inclined to ask for help, he knew it would be there.

  • Do NOT give zeros or take points off when students don't do work. This will put them in a hole that will ultimately make things worse, not better. What does it really prove to give a zero anyway? (As a recovering penalizer, I can empathize, but we need to let this control go.)

  • Offer multiple opportunities for success. Students may just need a little push and a teacher who believes in them. Sometimes negotiation is in order. We do what we have to do.

At the root of every challenge, we face with students of all ages is a story. Our job as teachers to figure out what the story is. Some students will be an open book and others we will need to be detectives to figure stuff out. Don't give up on the kids. Giving a zero is giving up and almost expecting them to do the same.

Late work is always symptomatic of something bigger. So let's fix the bigger problem and cut it off before it ruins students' experiences in school and in life to the point where they start labeling themselves in negative ways.

How can we work with students and their families to ensure learning is happening at a pace that is conducive to optimal success? Please share

*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in January of 2016

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