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How Can I Be Fair & Compassionate about Late Work…But Still Teach Students About Deadlines?


Late work. It’s nothing new. It was a problem before the pandemic, and according to my teacher friends, it’s even worse now. And when students struggle to submit assignments in a timely manner, what’s the protocol? Rigid deadlines with no forgiveness? Open-ended grace period? Late window with penalty? I’m not sure there’s a one-size-fits-all solution.

When it comes to grading policies, opinions vary. Some teachers choose not to accept any late work. When the deadline passes, that’s it. Others offer a specified window for late work, perhaps cutting it off at one week or two tops. Lastly, some teachers adjust to each scenario with whatever they deem appropriate. I understand the rationale behind each, but rarely is teaching a profession where things are just so matter of fact. There are always exceptions and unique circumstances that require judgment calls—it’s the nature of the job.

No late work is too harsh

I’ve never been one to institute a no late-work policy. While part of me would like to, it’s not the most pragmatic approach. In fact, it’s unreasonable and can lead to dissension with parents and even administrators. Sure, it places a premium on time management skills, but there are too many circumstances that complicate this policy, including, but not limited to, funerals, illness, injury, family strife, etc. It’s quite penal, which is the point. Submit the work on time, and there’s no issue. Yes, but a little flexibility goes a long way in establishing rapport with students and parents. 

Open-ended is too generous

And while the no late work policy seems too harsh, I would argue the open-ended policy is too generous. I’m all for showing compassion and offering second chances, but students need to take ownership of their learning. Part of that involves completing assignments and submitting on time. There’s a big difference between three days late and three weeks late. A policy without parameters perpetuates a cycle of late submissions, many of which will arrive during the next unit of instruction—maybe even later. I certainly don’t want to grade those. That’s a stressor. In the real world, there are consequences for missing deadlines. Learning that lesson while in school isn’t a bad thing.

A defined late-work option is just right!

Ultimately, the most equitable option is to accept late work within a reasonable time frame—one that’s clearly defined. This policy allows teachers to accommodate any of those personal scenarios, which are simply inevitable in teaching. If students fall behind, for whatever reason, they still have time to submit their work. When that window closes, though, it’s time to move on. The other consideration with this type of policy is whether to assess a late penalty. That’s tricky. Obviously, when it comes to illness or other extreme circumstances, compassion is important; but when students repeatedly waste class time or simply aren’t motivated, that’s different. If there’s no consequence for those scenarios, then what’s to prevent students from making the practice habitual? Gouging a student’s grade isn’t the best practice for work that’s a few days late, but I have no issue assessing a penalty. That penalty should serve as a reminder and hopefully a deterrent; it shouldn’t demoralize. 

Whichever option a teacher chooses, the real key is front-loading from day one.

That syllabus should clearly define the policy’s terms. If that means late work won’t be accepted, so be it. If the cut off is two weeks, the verbiage should match. And if it all depends on the scenario, there may be some headaches and added stress down the stretch. I know from experience. Some students genuinely need extra help and can benefit from a teacher’s flexibility, but others will simply take advantage. Students will try to submit work 77 days late. Sadly, I’ve seen it. 

There’s nothing wrong with establishing parameters and deadlines through clear channels of communication. Students need structure and boundaries. Teachers do as well. 

If the goal is to show some degree of compassion, to provide opportunities to self-correct, and to illustrate that all actions have consequences, then accepting late work within a reasonable time frame is the way to go. 

How do you deal with late work in your classroom? Share in the comments below. Plus, ways to deal with students who aren’t doing any work at all.

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