Every day 200 students file into my language arts classroom. When I give a writing assignment, spending just five minutes commenting on each paper is a 1000 minute –or 16 hour—investment. That is for just one assignment. I feel like I am constantly behind in my work (because I am!), but here is the really crazy part: I take late work. I even give full credit for those assignments not turned in on time.
The Big Picture
Some students have really good reasons why they did not submit an assignment on time. The team on which I teach is assigned all of the English language learners in the building. Many of these students have responsibilities after school that afford them no extra time in which to do school work: they care for younger siblings; work in order to contribute to the household income; cook for their working parent(s), etc. Quite often these students do not have the resources necessary to complete their assignments on time. Many of these students come to school worried about their immigration status, subtly asking questions about college opportunities for their cousin who came to the United States from another country. Add all of that adult stress to a language barrier, and it simply amazes me that these students do as well as they do in school.
There are other students who do not have any reason at all for their late work other than they forgot, or the dog ate it, or I left it in my locker. But truthfully, whatever the excuse, it does not really matter to me. All students are allowed to turn in late work—no matter how valid or invalid, good or bad, truthful or deceptive the reasons. Late work is accepted from all of my students. With that said, this does not mean that students are not held accountable for their responsibility in turning an assignment in on time—they absolutely are. I just care more about my students learning the material that I was hired to teach them than I do about these same students turning in their assignments on time.
Recently I discussed these ideas with a new friend, and she mentioned that it reminded her of a little book that she often shares with pre-service teachers called Mr. Devore's Do-Over by David Puckett. The book is an effective reminder that sometimes students (especially middle level students) learn on a different continuum than the one the teacher originally planned. Mr. Devore is intuitive enough to recognize that his students are individuals who are motivated differently. After all, middle level students are full of gifts and talents that they are only beginning to discover, and it is up to the teacher to provide the learning environment that is structured enough to nurture these gifts and talents, rigorous enough for depth of knowledge, yet flexible enough to provide every opportunity for every student to succeed.
Before I lose you as a reader, I absolutely do not advertise to my students that they can choose their deadlines. I have due dates, set high standards, and then choose to administer grace. Being compassionate means choosing the student first. Compassion chooses kindness over anger, and it chooses to make a person's life easier, not harder. Truthfully, since I have already pre-decided to accept late work—no matter what—I do not get frustrated with excuses given by students because I have already decided how I will respond.
With this policy, you may wonder just how I hold students accountable. When entering grades into our grading program, if a student is missing an assignment, I enter a 0 with an m code for missing. It is up to the student to request the missing assignment in writing through our online learning management system, giving the reason that the work is missing. Parents automatically receive all messages from the student to the teacher and from the teacher to the student. In other words, parents are aware of their children's missing work because their children have told them through a message to me. My philosophy is that it is my job to teach the students language arts, and it is the parent's job to teach their children responsibility. And yet, isn't asking for missing work in itself a type of responsibility?
I did not always have this philosophy. There were many, many years that I would not bend on the due date. I was determined to teach these students responsibility, which would be demonstrated by their prompt attention to their assignment due dates. It did not matter what these students were going through, what was happening at home, or if they had even eaten that day. I was more concerned with being personally inconvenienced by having to grade an assignment late. I chose myself over my students, and in doing so sent them a message that if they did not learn the material on my timeline, then they would not learn it at all.
Differentiating and Enabling
Every year teachers expect to receive a batch of students who learn differently. This is why we take classes in college that train us how to accommodate students who learn with auditory strengths, kinesthetic strengths, and visual strengths. Students also come with different types of motivation. Some are intrinsically motivated—those are the students who learn for the joy of learning. Others are extrinsically motivated—these students can be a bit tougher to reach. But the bottom line is that teachers differentiate instruction to best meet the individual student's needs. By doing so, teachers enable their students to learn.
Additionally, teachers expect there will be students who need extra attention (I bet you are thinking of someone right now!). This year that student for me is James. James is chronically absent, has never met his father, lives with a mother who cannot hold down a job, and comes to school smelling dirty. To make matters worse, James got a concussion at the beginning of the year: the perfect excuse—with a doctor's signature—to not do any school work. If I chose to enforce our school district's absence policy regarding homework, James would have a 0 in my class right now. Instead, I choose to accept late work. I faithfully gather up assignments that he has missed and make sure he understands what to do. Sometimes it is weeks past a due date that I finally receive an assignment from James. But, James has a C in my class. It is a grade that James has earned by learning, and he is proud of it. It is the best grade that he has right now, and he is determined not to lose it. By doing something as simple as accepting late work, I am able to breathe life and hope into a student like James who will simply be lost if not given second, third, and fourth chances. Some may criticize this philosophy by saying that I am enabling poor habits. I disagree ... I believe I am enabling my students to learn by differentiating the timeline on the learning continuum.
The Bigger Picture
I decided to become a teacher 25 years ago because I wanted to help make people's lives better. I get to teach reading and writing, and when students learn to do these things, it gives them the tools they need for an incredible life. I want to be an inspiring person who leads my students to reach higher than they ever thought they could reach. Sometimes it takes students a little longer to achieve those skills than I would like, but at the end of the day, how I am measured as a teacher is not whether my students turned in every assignment on time. Some would measure my teaching by how well my students can read and write as determined by state tests, but I think there is more. State tests cannot measure the brightness of the lightbulb that finally burns in the eyes of a student who submits their work consistently late, but it is submitted none-the-less. I believe the greater measure of my success is when my students trust that I will meet them where they are, and no matter what the timeline, I will be their teacher.
Rebecca Brock teaches eighth grade language arts at Westfield Middle School in Westfield, Indiana. She has taught for 25 years.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, Feburary 2018.