Education Opinion

The Dog Ate My...

By Coleen Armstrong — March 01, 1999 4 min read
When a teacher gets rid of deadlines, students run out of excuses and do their work.

Call it age. Call it wisdom--or perhaps just mellowing. But in my 29th year of teaching, I decided to stop being a slave to the clock and the calendar. What’s more, I stopped insisting that my students march in lock step: In my senior English classes, I eliminated due dates for papers.

It was a radical move. Under my new policy, I gave students an idea of when they should turn in long-term assignments, but I left the exact date pretty much up to them. If they fell behind my recommended deadlines, all they had to do was write a note of explanation with some indication of when I could expect their papers. If I didn’t hear from them, I warned, I’d assume the assignment wasn’t forthcoming.

I have been working 40 hours a week, and I just moved into my own apartment. I still have to rent Hamlet, since I wasn’t exactly following the play. I will have my essay questions done by Wednesday, if that’s OK. Thanks.


It’s no secret that life has grown more hectic for all of us, teenagers being no exception. I teach in an urban, blue-collar community. Nearly all my students have “part-time” jobs that drain 30 to 50 hours each week. To say they’re sleep-deprived would be an understatement. Most have car payments. Many have babies. This is the reality of adolescent life in the ‘90s. I can’t change it. I can only deal with it.

But like any veteran teacher, I spent nearly three decades listening to excuses--some genuine, some fabricated, some totally bizarre. For years, my choices were limited; I could either adopt a dictator’s stance, refusing to consider any mitigating circumstances whatsoever, or I could become a full-time judge and jury, evaluating the merits of each and every sob story. Both seemed equally ludicrous, particularly when I considered that my kids were nearly adults.

Two years ago, I finally decided to simply opt out of this conflict. I let students make their own decisions, based on what they thought best. After all, even with my supreme organizational skills, I had to admit there were some weekends when my bulging briefcase never made it out of my car. Some nights I was too exhausted to move off the couch, let alone grade papers. It didn’t mean that I suffered from a lack of discipline or character; other nights I knocked off a class of compositions in two breakneck hours. Everything was relative. I had a right to my free time, and I also had a right to decide when to work and when not to. Didn’t my students deserve the same?

That first year, though, I viewed my move as an experiment. I had no way of knowing whether it would make my life easier or twice as hard. But because my tactic flew directly in the face of what most teachers view as ultimate truth--give them an inch, they’ll take a mile--I didn’t have high hopes. More than likely, I would be marking thousands of journal pages, essays, and compositions in the semester’s final hours.

Well, surprise. The kids got sweeter. More conscientious. And more concerned, believe it or not, about not only their own deadlines but also about mine.

I’m really sorry I haven’t finished those essay questions yet. I have the rough drafts for all but one. For the past two weeks, I’ve had to work until 9 each night. I want to hand in my best work and not worry about getting a lower grade, but I don’t want to inconvenience you too much. Could you please accept them on Monday? I’ll have them on your desk first thing in the morning.


I need a little more time on my composition. Could I have until Wednesday to finish? I was gone all weekend and didn’t have time to do any work. I really want to put forth an effort and pass your class. I’m not sucking up.


I have to ask you to accept my journal late just this once. I went to work on Saturday, and it was hot out, and I rolled down my window, and when I came out it had rained, and my journal was lying on the floor, and it was destroyed, so I had to start over. I will do this! I will turn in 15 pages to you by Thursday. Sorry. I did not plan things this way. I’m just behind. I need to get caught up before I fail my senior year. I sure don’t look forward to coming back next semester. From now on, I will remember to lock my journal in the trunk!


Reprimands were unnecessary, lectures irrelevant. In short order, the kids fulfilled every teacher’s dream and became masters of their own destiny. No longer did I have to play the role of Lord High Executioner. I didn’t have to brandish a sword or threaten failure; they did it themselves. The result: better communication. Better relationships. More honesty. More trust. Exactly the things we teachers claim we want. Exactly what we’re unlikely to have as long as authority remains vested with us, not with them.

I have not decided if I’m even going to attempt this assignment. I can’t write two words on each question, so how am I going to write two pages? I don’t really have time to do this anyway.


No, you can’t win them all. But at least now Tony would have a hard time charging me with his failure. And that’s probably the biggest change I’ve seen in students’ attitudes. If they want someone to blame, they need only look in the mirror.

A student this past term, Natalie, complained that I had not extended the flexible due-date policy through the last week of the semester, when I’m busy preparing students’ final grades. Natalie admitted that she had been lazy but broke off in mid-sentence: “I can’t believe I’m saying this to you. You must think I sound like a complete moron.”

All I had to do was shrug and smile. Natalie was doing her own intellectual work--and she was harder on herself than I ever could have been. I was merely the guide, the coach, the innocent bystander. Which was as it should have been all along.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as The Dog Ate My...