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flexibility isn't weakness

With the school year well underway, I have found myself facing a familiar question from a few of my students just before or just after an assignment is due: Can I turn this in late? Sometimes the question comes only when I reach out to them after a due date has passed. I try to approach this exchange with a light touch, something like Hey, I noticed I’m missing your essay. Did you forget to submit it? Sometimes, the student has, in fact, simply forgotten to turn in the work and the situation is resolved on the spot. Yay! Other times, I hear variations of “I’ve been really busy,” “I forgot it was due,” and “Can I turn it in late?”

And that’s when I have to remember not to answer too quickly - or as a function of my immediate mood or my own level of busyness. (Gonna be honest, I do sometimes want to ask if they’d like to compare To Do lists. I don’t though. Because I’m a grown-up and my organizational systems are far more fine-tuned, and because from the sounds of it, some of my students are insanely busy. While I might be tucked into bed binging The Great British Baking Show, they might be riding home from a game or rehearsal or some other obligation trying to do homework in a car, not yet having eaten dinner. So, there’s that.)

When I get the question, I try hard to keep a few things in mind:

How can I respond to this in a way that reaffirms a commitment to seeing students as actual people with busy, complex lives? Things do come up – for adults and students – and sometimes those things make it difficult to get everything done as planned. In my own life, when people have responded to my needs and requests with flexibility and compassion, I have been more inclined to work harder and complete the task well. I have not been more inclined to shirk my responsibilities. So why would I assume that response from my students? Far better to deal with the occasional student or colleague who takes advantage of a situation than to assume everyone will. When students think about my class, I don’t want them filled with anxiety and dread or the sense that I am unmovable no matter the circumstances.

How can I respond to this in a way that honors an understanding of the life skills that students really do need: time management, distraction control, keeping track of responsibilities? More than once in the Twitter-sphere, I’ve seen educators debate the question of “do you give the kid a pencil?” – and do you do it with or without the lecture on being prepared for class? I’m firmly in the “give the kid a pencil” camp (surprise, surprise), but I do understand that skills of preparation and organization need to be developed. I just think there are better times to do it than in the moment when the pencil is missing. When my kids were young, they had what they needed every day not because they were so on top of backpack organization, but because I was. Not every kid has that help and not every kid (or caregiver) has the same level of executive functioning skills. With older students – even high school students – executive functioning support can be as simple as making time for students to make a one- or two-week plan for completing various stages of a project.

How can I respond in a way that respects my own nitty gritty reality? It’s organizationally difficult to have assignments coming in at wildly different times. And sometimes a lesson plan assumes that we are all ready to do a certain thing – like give each other rounds of feedback on each other’s drafts. Students who don’t meet the deadline for getting a draft in miss a great opportunity for feedback and revision. And sometimes – like toward the end of the quarter when I have a hard deadline for getting grades in – I really can’t have an assignment coming in late at all if I want to respond to it thoughtfully. These are legitimate issues that sometimes constrain the leeway I can offer a student. Time and again, though, I find it helps to not answer too quickly. When I take a few minutes to find out what’s going on (#HumilityCareCuriosity) and what constraints they’re experiencing, we can nearly always figure out a solution that works for both of us.

I don’t have all the answers to this age-old problem. But I know that I have never regretted responding to a student in a way that served and strengthened our relationship. Classrooms can feature relationships that are positive and motivating or negative and demotivating. Ultimately, a lot more learning happens in the first one and it’s a much more pleasant place to be.

Image Credit: Dave Hoefler (Unsplash)


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