Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Talking Back to Late Work Policies

While organizing computer files  to close my classroom for the year, I came across Rick Wormeli's article Late Work: A Constructive Response.” It inspired me to write my own version.

It’s the end of the school year. There are less than seven days of school left. You have research papers and quizzes to grade—you took these papers home last Friday and the Friday before that. It’s not a stretch to say that you are behind in giving students feedback. You’re also behind when it comes to posting your lesson plans to the shared network site. You are walking through the building towards the parking lot, dragging a rolling crate, a bag of student work slung over your shoulder, a sack of the week’s Tupperware containers clutched in one hand.

Just as you are about to exit the front office, your assessing administrator calls, “Hey, how about those lesson plans?” You freeze. Smile uncomfortably. You hold your breath without realizing it. Though you were supposed to post lesson plans before teaching the Monday of each week, you haven’t uploaded anything recently.

Your assessing administrator continues, “Any chance you could post them before you leave?  It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to upload.”

You let go of the crate handle, set your sack of student work down and shift the bag of lunch containers to your opposite hand.  You turn back and say, “I’m so sorry. I forgot to do that. I have my lesson plans on my laptop at home. Is it okay if I upload them over the weekend?”

Interested in growing or maintaining a relationship, the administrator says, “Sure. I’ll look for them Monday.”

What happens if you are habitually non-compliant? It should be different.  In all industries, adults  account for nonperformance. If an employee chronically does not complete routine tasks or continually avoids meeting set expectations said employee could expect a written reprimand or a poor yearly evaluation. In teaching, depending the teaching contract and position, a teacher could be asked to leave the school. The teaching assignment could change. The teacher could be sent to additional trainings or required to meet more frequently with supervisors.  All are within an administrators’ rights.

If the teacher regularly complies and meets expectations, one expects a compassionate response.  We expect deadlines to flex  in order to make room for disruptions. Our school week might get thrown off by: talent shows, testing schedules, network failures or lock-down drills. Life happens too: car accidents or bad traffic, sinus infections or fatigue, doctors’ appointments or a days off, weddings, births, deaths, a hangnail or a headache. Surely extremes are not the only reasonable justifications for missing a deadline or arriving late.
If only that common sense applied in all classrooms. Many high school teachers will not accept late work from students. If teachers do accept late work they dock the work unreasonably:  one or two letter grades off or half credit are common penalties. Can you imagine American Airlines refunding half the cost of an airline ticket due to a late gate departure?

What if the penalty for filing our income taxes late was a percentage of our return? What percentage would you deem fair? What if our government said, “Sure, you can file with an extension and we’ll keep half of the money owed to you.”  Did you not earn that income? Did you not pay additional monies into the system to guarantee a refund? Instead of being rewarded, your effort is punished.

I accept late work, unconditionally. Only in cases of dishonesty does a zero figure in to an average. I have yet to disavow all consequences though.  I maintain the fairest consequence I experienced as a student: one-third of a letter grade penalty for each day past deadline. That works out to roughly three points a day if the assignment is worth one-hundred. Students can still earn an excellent grade for excellent work, even it is late.  

Learning is continual. I partner a redo or resubmit policy with the late work piece. If a student wants to learn more they get opportunities to do so and may earn higher marks as they demonstrate learning. That mediates the late penalty a bit and provides more opportunities for me to reward effort and recognize or assess actual knowledge and skill.

Some high school teachers are still focused on behavior. If we grade behavior are we blind to knowledge and skill? Or do we just minimize it? 

Some high school teachers believe punishment motivates. They say that they “don’t have time to constantly grade late work.” They forbid it. These teachers have zero tolerance policies toward late work that decimates a student's average.  

Instead, teach high school students how to prioritize and how to manage or juggle deadlines. Some assignments may need more attention than others. Some grades may not weigh as heavily. Learning to distinguish “what needs doing when” is an important life skill; one students will delay developing if not given the opportunity. We have an opportunity and an obligation to teach students.

Teach accountability explicitly. Explain common challenges and how to overcome them. Share stories of consequence from college and the real world of work. Teachers do more than assign and punish. Teachers  expect and then explain. They  model and teach. Teachers put the feedback loop into practice. Teachers do not send students blindly into a cave we call rigor. Teachers, even in secular schools, must also learn to forgive, forget and forge on.

We teach students about effort by acknowledging it, no matter when it happens. If we do not allow for grace when it comes to deadlines, students will quickly learn that additional effort gets them nowhere. Why do it, if it is going to be used to insult you? Why do it if does not lead to learning? Why grade something—especially a piece of writing—if the grade is the only feedback a student gets? 

We teach students to improve through assessment and evaluation. Assessment at its best shows students how to grow their skill or knowledge. It shows students how to correct misunderstandings and perfect or improve performance. Students improve performance when they learn that turning things in on time counts.

Model compassion and make peace with a teenager's frontal lobe development. Executive functions are not fully functional at this age--nuanced decision making and ethical thinking are developing skills. Treat them as such.

We teach students to persevere in the face of difficulty when we allow them to turn in work late. We teach them compassion and a whole lot about being flexible. Accountability is not a one shot, one day and you’re done concept. That's a lesson worth learning.

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Gracious thanks to Rick Wormelli, whose book Fair Isn’t Always Equal continuous to guide me and for his article “Late Work: A Constructive Response” which I used as a model text for this writing. 

Hosted by the team at Two Writing Teachers, link up your Slice of Life 
on Tuesdays throughout the year. 


  1. Thank you for a very thought provoking piece. It must be very difficult as a teacher to find the right balance between being arbitrary with punishment and realizing that life goes on outside the classroom and not every late assignment is caused by laziness.

  2. I accept late work but, with an opportunity cost. Make up work is more time consuming. I try to teach them that the procrastination isn't worth it. Thanks Lee.

  3. I agree with all this, Lee Ann, especially that the teaching of how to approach the parts of assignments, when, how much, what's the first step, breaking into parts. All needs a conversation and teaching the students the 'how-to'. One of the things former students often have shared is that the time management skills they took away were invaluable in high school. And yes, they also shared that the general policy is one day late, one grade down, etc. One final part I would add, that learning to talk with one's teachers is another skill worth discussing.

  4. Saving this for summer reading, Lee Ann. Right now my head hurts from keeping track of all that must be done in the next eight days!

  5. I just read an article yesterday about how harmful "No Tolerance" policies can actually be. Thanks for the post! :)

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful post! I find myself continually contemplating what my late policy will be as a teacher and I still haven't found the right formula. As I develop my late policy, I will keep your post in mind: "Teachers do not send students blindly into a cave we call rigor."

  7. Being done on time should be its own reward. Should be. Those with a work ethic need to not worry about anyone else. They've done theirs, That is, until they see one or two later timers copy off of returned work for a fraction of the points off. Who's going to rat? Fewer than we realize. I am not a "zero tolerance" person, I believe my assignment needs to be done or I wouldn't have assigned it. Yet, some things need a deadline. Period.

  8. I agree with much of this thoughtful post but there should be no penalties for late work and zeros should NEVER be used.