Warning: Deadlines are closer than they appear

Today is the last day of April break.  Tomorrow starts the down hill slide to graduation and summer break.  This means my juniors have their major essays due in a few weeks, and my seniors are fighting (not hard enough) lustily against senior-itis.  Thinking about the end of the year has me thinking about deadlines and holding students accountable.

There is a general consensus in education circles today that students should not have their grades punished for missing deadlines-that leniency is necessary since it is more important that students complete the work and it doesn’t matter so much when they complete their work.  This has led to much frustration as the theory and practice aren’t aligning nearly as nicely as people would like.  Teachers lament that students believe deadlines don’t mean anything and we aren’t teaching them any sort of accountability.  Isn’t part of our job to teach them responsibility?  Sure, if I don’t turn something into my boss on time, I don’t immediately lose my job, but if I consistently don’t do stuff on time, I do risk losing my job.

These are all very legitimate arguments, but punishing students’ grades is not the answer.  In reflecting on my practice when listening to other teachers, it occurred to me that I don’t have nearly as many issues with students taking advantage of me regarding deadlines.  Part of that is that I teach some A level classes, which are students who are generally responsible and motivated by grades.  But I also have a reputation for being a bit of a hard ass; my students-in pretty much all my classes-will tell you that my workload and expectations put them under a great deal of stress.  And yet, very few issues regarding deadlines.

To that end, I’m going to throw out some different strategies I use for managing student deadlines:

  1.  provide sliding deadlines.  I sometimes provide a range for a due date: essays are due Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  You choose.  When I do this, even my most habitual malingerers give me an essay by Friday.
  2. indicate a time when the essay is due and provide a justification.  Somethings are due at the start of class since we will be using them in class.  Some things are due by the end of the day (2:30 to be precise)
  3. let the class decide on a  due date.  I give them a time frame (1 week), lay out what we are doing in class each day that they may have to prepare for, and then the class decides as a whole when they want the thing due.  I find providing this control for them really helps.
  4. let them decide individually.  I generally only due this for my smallest classes, but sometimes when I hand by essay drafts, I ask each kid when conferencing: when can you get me the final draft?  They’re generally pretty reasonable and then they can pace themselves accordingly.  Is it more work to keep track of each kid’s individual due date?  Not really-I just keep a little log going for each day.
  5. remind them that they can turn stuff in early.  I find this helps them pace themselves better and avoid procrastinating.
  6. sometimes I keep a countdown on the board for major assignments.  This keeps it a little fresher in their heads.
  7. move pre-established due dates.  It demonstrates flexibility and kindness on my part.  I often have essays due on Fridays, but then change it to Monday when I realize there is no way I will start grading them over the weekend.
  8. work with kids individually on their time management and deadlines.  This should be a no brainer, but it bears repeating.  If I notice a kid is way behind in major project, I’ll usually sit down with him and set new due dates and goals for him to get caught up.  Letting him sink further into a hole helps no one.

I’m sure there are plenty more great ideas out there.  This is just a quick list to get started.  God speed to all teachers as we head toward the end of the school year.


A teacher’s ego

A piece of advice I give to new teachers every year is to be willing to say “I don’t know” and “I’m sorry.”  This is advice that bears repeating over and over again.  Perhaps it’s human nature, but these are hard things for us to admit.  As teachers we worry about saying that we don’t know for fear that we will look like we don’t know what we are talking about.  Saying “I’m sorry” of course implies that I was wrong.  Neither of these is appealing if I’m trying to come across as an authority to teach and guide students.

But the power of these phrases lies in their ability to build trust and relationships.  When we say “I don’t  know” or “I’m sorry” to our students we are making ourselves more vulnerable.  We are opening ourselves up to them.  We are proving to them that we are real people who make mistakes and can admit it.  This builds trust, and actually increases our effectiveness as teachers.  Our own ego that makes this hard is hurting us quite a bit.

I personally have always had trouble admitting when I am wrong, but I’ve been forced to do it over the years.  Recently I taught my juniors about pronoun antecedent agreement.  The lesson was thrown together a bit too hastily and my examples weren’t nearly as clear as they should have been.  Half way through the lesson I had to stop and apologize for how unclear I was being.  I wanted to just plow on.  I wanted to blame them for not trying to understand.  The reality was I did a poor job planning this and, as a result, a poor job explaining it.  It was hard to stop and say that I’ve messed up, but it was necessary.  Obviously at this point in the year, I have already established trust and relationships with my students, but to maintain those relationships, I had to do this.  I tried to do it seamlessly; most of them probably didn’t even realize how hard it was to stop and admit my mistakes.

Learning happens when relationships happen.  Relationships happen when trust occurs.  To achieve that we must put aside our egos and say “I don’t” and “I’m sorry.”