Late work

Every fall I get a list that tells me which of my students have medical conditions. It is clearly useful for me to know if I have students whose blood sugar may drop due to diabetes, may be prone to seizures, etc...  There is usually one student on my list, however that may surprise you. I invariably have one student listed who has urinary tract infections. My instructions printed on the sheet are to let her use the restroom whenever she requests. 

If this sounds odd to you, I'm right with you. Why wouldn't a reasonable person let a student use the restroom when they need to? If you think that a request like this is only created because some parents out there are crazy, you can just stop reading this post right now. I'm only going annoy you.

School culture is a strange thing, that's what I've been mulling over recently.  The four oddities that strike me are:

  • Going to the bathroom 
  • Turning in late work
  • Cell phone use
  • Tardies

As a general observation, I would say that many teachers spend a lot of time and energy around this issues while students feel that their teachers care more about these things than they do about anything else (including learning).

In fairness to teachers, managing students can drive you nuts.  Its a crazy task with too many bodies, too many pieces of paper and endless interruptions. And all of the things on the list above can create distractions from our primary goal: Learning.  However, you don't have to think too long before you realize that we're kind of nutty about these issues.  A few examples:

  • On my campus, teachers regularly come late to school.  Some of them are the same teachers that never tolerate tardies with their students and will drop them from the class after their fifth tardy.
  • At our staff meetings you can see teachers checking their phones constantly. I see this behavior everywhere I go. Schools are the only place I can think of with zero tolerance for phones.
  • The IRS, the DMV and the credit card companies accept late payments, usually for a 10%penalty.  Yet at two back-to-school nights this fall, at least half of my own children's teachers made it clear that late would not be accepted, Ever.

Let me be clear.  I want to teach students responsibility.  I want them to learn when and how is the appropriate time to use their phones. I like it when my co-workers are punctual in their duties. But consider this anecdote.

One Thursday our campus had a football game.  As I looked across my 5th period stats class, I noticed that I had several football players, a few cheerleaders and several band kids. These kids would pretty much be busy from 2pm to 11pm.  So at the end of class, I announced that the homework I was assigning that night could be a day late for all involved. To me this seemed reasonable. My students responded like I had given them a huge present. This surprised me. Was it so unusual for these great students to be given one night's grace on their work? I teach on a campus with GREAT faculty. They amaze me. Yet apparently this was an unusual offer.

In the end, I think this post is a plea. A request for reasonableness. I think as teachers we can surmount the challenge of dealing with the craziness of these headaches by embracing two concepts: compassion and creativity.

Compassion guides us as we realize that our students are kids. They are growing and learning and all too often not in control of all the variables in their life.  I have student with an iPhone. Her dad has yet to buy her a scientific calculator this year. So every day she borrows one of my mine. So be it.  I had a student fail to bring in his big polygon project. He tells me he was kicked out of dad's house in the afternoon and had to go to his mom's instead.  Where he had no supplies. So I took the project the next day and took off just a few points. Who knows if it was his fault or his parents or some mixture in-between? But I'm thrilled that he let me know what was going on. He was failing my class initially, but went to some of our extra Saturday study sessions and has rasied his grade to a C.

Creativity helps us get what we want out of students, and separate those who deserve mercy from those who don't. A 10 minute delay in granting a bathroom pass can help discern a biological need from a leisurely stroll across campus. I often use writing lines as a silly punishment for silly behavior. Writing "My future employer will appreciate my punctuality" 25 times usually convinces the tardy student that one last kiss just wasn't worth it. And his classmates usually notice (especially if the lines are taped to the window during the last week of the year when tardies grow with spring flowers) and join in the race up the stairs.

In the end I think a zero-tolerance policy or a rule that is 100% "consistent" (read: inflexible) is more comforting to many teachers. But it rarely actually results in justice. Our students are children. And humans. They deserve thoughtful and compassionate classroom policies that have the flexibility needed to bend with their growth and to maximize learning.