Thoughts about Late Work Policies

all in gutter

(Thanks to The Styling Librarian, I just made my first quote poster using ReciteThis!)

This Oscar Wilde quote popped into my head this morning as I was reflecting on part of last night’s discussion in Methods class. There we were talking about how to transform our students’ lives through literacy, how to help them view the world with wonder and curiosity, how to educate citizens for thoughtful participation in a democracy, definitely looking-at-the-stars stuff.

And then someone asked how many points you should take off an assignment turned in late.

Back to the gutter!

I mean that in a nice way. Back to earth! Back to the reality of working with 150 or so individuals who all have different experiences and needs in an institutional setting that isn’t usually designed with individual needs in mind. 

I was glad to read today that Mariah spent a bunch of time pondering deadlines and late-work policies, because I did too.

Teaching, maybe more than most professions, is this constant balancing act between transformation and drudgery. 

I love talking about the procedures and policies and routines of functional classrooms because those structures are what enable us to create transformative learning experiences. I need habit and routine to be able to learn. And I need habit and routine even more to be able to teach. I often think of my teaching architecturally: as building a space with the foundations and beams solid enough to support the kind of learning I want students to be doing. I’m asking my students to go out on a limb, to mix metaphors. I have to be sure it’s strong enough to hold up their weight.

But I also have to be sure I’m not needlessly imposing restrictions that get in the way of my ultimate learning goals.

And late-work policies seem to me a fine example of an unnecessary restriction designed more to control people, to enforce compliance, to motivate through fear, than to promote learning.

Why do we have late-work policies where we dock some arbitrary number of points based on the amount of lateness that’s involved? What purpose do these policies really serve? I think it’s hard to come up with anything beyond this: they reward compliant students who did as we asked within the time limits we imposed, and they punish students who did not do as we asked. By “allowing” students to submit missing assignments late and docking them points, we can justify our policy as a natural consequence rather than as a punishment. 

Funnily enough, the students who are motivated by late-work policies are the exact students who will always do their work on time anyway.

The student who didn’t submit her work has a reason. I am much more interested in that reason.

First, I have to ask myself what I’m doing wrong. Am I the kind of person my students can learn from? Because I’ve taught students who categorically refused to do work for a particular teacher who, they felt, didn’t respect them. They didn’t care that it meant they failed the class. They were that committed to their belief that a classroom needs to be a space of mutual respect. Is this student having some sort of personality conflict with me that I need to address?

Next, I’m going to look more closely at the assignment. I have to ask if the work I assigned was worth my students’ time. Is it busy work? Does it have real value? Are they going to learn something meaningful by completing this assignment? All teachers want to believe that everything we ask students to do in our classrooms is meaningful and necessary for learning and growth, but that’s simply not true.

If I look carefully at my assignment and determine that it’s busy work (meaning it asks students to repeat something they’ve already done in class or to do low-level work like regurgitating information; or maybe it’s really designed to punish students who didn’t do the reading; or maybe it’s something I’m assigning just because other teachers do or because my administrator thinks this is something we should do in English class or because I need to post a certain arbitrary number of grades each week), I can’t really blame my students for not doing it. I was wasting their time–as well as my own, because I had to grade that busy work I assigned.

But if I look closely at the assignment and determine that it’s meaningful work that supports the larger learning goals of my classroom, I need to talk to my student about why she didn’t do the assignment.

Subtracting some arbitrary number of points for a late assignment without finding out the cause and addressing the cause doesn’t help students learn. And my job is to help EVERY student learn. Even the ones who say they won’t. And especially the ones who think they can’t.

And in my experience, that’s usually the root cause behind the habitual repeat offender’s apparent unwillingness to do the work you assign. They think they can’t. 

How is subtracting that arbitrary number of points going to convince the student who thinks he can’t that he actually can? How is it going to convince the student who says he won’t? I worry that late-work policies, like most other punitive school policies, work more to absolve us from our responsibility to educate all of our students.

What, then, do you do with the student who won’t/can’t do the work you assign? First, determine if they really cannot do the work. Perhaps they don’t understand the assignment but didn’t know how to ask for clarification. Perhaps they are really lost in your class. If you discover that, you can provide the extra help they need.

If you think they are intellectually capable of doing the work but they can’t/won’t do it, you have an interesting psychological case on your hands, and then you start experimenting. An earnest pep talk will work for some. A joke will work for others. I have sat beside students and taken dictation. I have sat beside students and physically placed their hand around their pencil with my hand and guided their hand under mine to form words on the page. I have barked and yelled, cajoled and wheedled. I have bribed. I have begged. I have stamped my foot. I have rolled around on the floor. I have shown up at their locker, by their bus, on the practice field. Most of all, I have been persistent.

I have been told by well-meaning administrators, “You can’t care more than they care. It’s their education. They have to be responsible for themselves.”

But that presupposes that students experience school as a place of learning and caring. That presupposes that students’ needs are being met inside and outside the classroom. In my experience, the students who don’t turn in their work are often the students no one cares about enough. I may have to do more than my fair share of caring to get them to a place where they can and will learn from me. 

5 thoughts on “Thoughts about Late Work Policies

  1. I realize I’m being a bit of a curmudgeonly (and you are definitely a much nicer teacher than I was when I taught!), but what about how missing the deadlines affect your own teaching schedule? That is, what you do in class one day might be based on what they’ve learned from the assignment that was due the day before….

    • I did have something in the original draft of this post that addressed that very question, and I deleted because I thought the post was getting too long! But you’re absolutely right. My answer on this has to do with the differences in teaching college and high school. I don’t accept late work in my college classes because what we’re doing in class does depend so heavily on what students have done outside of class. But at the high school level, I learned very quickly that I couldn’t make my lessons dependent on what I expected students to do outside of class because they often didn’t do it. When my lesson was a discussion of a reading assignment and 0 students in the class read the assignment, you can imagine how productive class was. I was scrambling to find something else to do with those 52 minutes, and I was angry at the students for not doing what they were told to do and quite pleased to have a policy whereby I could dock lots of points. I’ll show you! Minus 3 points per class period for being late! What I ended up doing was restructuring my classroom for Year 2. My students had many valid reasons for not doing homework, and frankly, once I really thought about the pedagogical rationales and value of homework, I couldn’t find any reason to assign it (aside from pleasure reading–that was the daily homework assignment in my class). Once I was no longer assigning homework, my teaching no longer depended on what students did or didn’t submit. Late work also kind of ceases to be much of a problem if students are doing their work in the room with you. That’s why I love the workshop model: 5-10 minutes for a whole-class lesson, and the rest of class spent with students working individually or collaboratively on different reading and writing projects. If students aren’t working, you can intervene so much more quickly and find out what’s going on.

  2. Ah, that makes a lot of sense! It also makes good use of the school day for the high school students, instead of just having to either listen in class or zone out, as the case may be. Martha would also like your policy, as her kids often have SO MUCH homework to do per night, and a lot seems like busy work….

  3. Pingback: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? 9/30/13 | the dirigible plum

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