Education Opinion

Missing Assignments--and the Real World

By Nancy Flanagan — January 22, 2016 3 min read
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It’s a story that every teacher has heard--and if they’ve been in the classroom for a couple of years, recognizes from personal experience:

The teacher is relatively new, and working hard to build an effective practice (in this case, a band program). She goes away for three days, to a conference, leaving behind sub plans which involve sending students to the computer lab to craft a PowerPoint on composers. Only five of her 67 students submit any work. Her question to the Band Directors Group professional network: How do I not freak out on Monday? How do I handle this?

The post hit a nerve--she has about 50 responses so far. What’s surprising to me is how many are bent on blame and punishment: What an incompetent sub! Give ‘em all zeros! Candy and a free day for the five compliant ones! Make sure your administrator backs you up, then nuke ‘em--that’s how they learn.

Just what they learn from these retaliatory strategies--or the impact on a young teacher trying to nurture enthusiasm and membership in a school music program--seems unimportant. Kids blew off an assignment--make sure their grades reflect that choice. (The words “choice” and “choose” appear frequently in the comments.) Get tough. They deserve it.

I once wrote a blog about a similar experience I had as a teacher. I assigned a big project, giving my students six weeks to complete it, and a lot of what teachers call scaffolding: things to read, ideas to help them select and shape their work, graphic organizers and outlines, the option of working singly or together. I had more than 300 students at the time, and over 90% turned the project in on time.

When the work was turned in, I realized it would take me weeks to read/listen to the projects, provide feedback and grade them. I offered the 25 or so students who hadn’t completed the project a grace period of a week to turn something in--since I wanted to make sure they engaged with the assignment’s materials and ideas. All but one or two of the original non-completers finished the work--and what was submitted was mostly of acceptable quality. A handful were top-notch. I also got a couple of thank-you messages from parents.

That blog also drew a lot of ire. From teachers. The word most teachers chose was “unfair"---unfair to the kids who did the work on time. Unfair to let students think they would get a reprieve in the (here it comes) real world. Unfair to other teachers, who insist on meeting deadlines and punish kids who don’t.

I’ve been musing about this. These are the questions that emerge for me:

  • What were the teacher’s learning goals for this assignment? Were they communicated to the students? If the goal was “keep kids busy and out of the band room for three days,” then the outcome was predictable, even if not defensible.
  • How do our students--all our students, from kindergarten to Chemistry--perceive classes taught by substitutes? What do teachers say to their students about subs and days when they must be absent? What do teachers say to their students about what can be accomplished with three days in a computer lab?
  • What does it tell our students when compliance matters more than acquiring knowledge or skills? When getting a good grade becomes the only goal?
  • How “unfair” is it to students who must work or mind siblings, that other students have long blocks of discretionary time available for schoolwork? Can we ever provide equitable opportunity for all students, equitable access to time and materials for optimum learning?

The two mega-issues that emerge whenever teachers talk about missing assignments and justifying their actions toward late work are grades--always grades--and the idea that we owe kids “real” experiences to prepare them for the big, bad world where they will be presumably be working in a few years. Paul Thomas, in an excellent piece on grading and late work has this to say:

In my 30-plus years as an educator at nearly every level possible, I witness daily teachers and professors who fail to meet deadlines (regularly); talk, do other things (grade papers), stare at their computers/smart phones, etc., during meetings; and behave in a number of ways that they do not tolerate by students in their classes, behaviors that negatively impact students' grades. I also drive daily with adult motorists who exceed the speed limit without any punishment--as most of us have come to realize a grace zone of staying less than ten mph over that limit. In other words, the real world of rules is much fuzzier than the rules of formal schooling.

My fellow Education Week Teacher blogger Starr Sackstein has been pushing educator thinking on grades for years. She also had a brilliant blog on late work last week, where she wrote this:

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

In the case of the young music teacher and the chorus of “Off with their heads!” that followed her post--a lot the recommendations felt like habitual, unexamined teacher practice: I always give half-credit for one day late OR I wouldn’t waste important class time talking about it--just tell them to check the on-line gradebook.

The only upside I see is that the novice teacher who asked for help got it--and there was enough variety in the responses to prove that there is no one right way to address common problems. I wish her well. And I’m guessing she won’t use the assignment again.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.