The Death of the Deadline

The American post modernist attitude has reshaped and redefined many aspects of our life, privacy for one and deadlines for another.  Lately, it seems, that some people in academia have developed this notion that we have evolved, making deadlines passé, and stifling. This new school of thought emphasizes the fact that although life is short, you can not put a time limit on creativity, so why not go ahead and provide students with all the time they need to complete whatever is their grand design!  These pseudo advocates for student rights have succeeded in making me wonder if Michelangelo had a deadline to complete the Sistine Chapel, or if Shakespeare had patrons breathing down his throat to ensure he would deliver his literary genius right on schedule.

If we allow this educational trend to influence us, we begin to think about deadlines in a new light; we not only begin to question if you can not put a time limit on genius, but whether like so many societal norms naturally upturned at the beginning of a new century, is forcing our students to adhere to deadlines detrimental to their being?

I believe the answer is absolutely not! Establishing deadlines for completing assigned tasks in a classroom setting, and requiring students to meet them teaches students responsibility, accountability, and dependability, and is the only way for a teacher to assess student mastery of concepts being taught and learned.

In my 20 year teaching experience, I have observed that gradually all educational stakeholders have been responsible for negatively influencing and changing our country’s attitude about the relationship between students and deadlines in the classroom. 

Laissez faire has become the norm regarding deadlines, not only in our country’s elementary, middle and high schools, but I was recently shocked to discover this practice of ignoring deadlines to be commonplace in colleges across the country.  As a parent of a college freshman, my daughter has confessed that professors allow students to decide when they are ready to submit term papers, and some even tell students deadlines for assignments are negotiable.

Like any shock to the status quo, a sign of deviation from the established norm guarantees you are considered inflexible to change and labels you a pariah. In many schools, teachers who do not accept late work from their students fall out of favor not only with their students, but also with parents, counselors, administrators and even with their fellow teachers.  In short, teachers who refuse to participate in boycotting deadlines become educational pariahs and are placed in a role where they must defend why late work is simply not acceptable. 

In the college setting, even more is at stake for our country.  When professors do not show leniency in deadlines, students and parents complain; a professor’s course becomes unpopular, and the college loses money. The college student graduates with a substandard education and no sense of responsibility. The death of deadlines in college is a dangerous trend; it is a student’s culmination of years of elementary, middle and high school conditioning to defy deadlines.

If it is difficult to teach students about the importance of meeting deadlines, it becomes impossible to educate parents on why they are doing more harm than good when they make excuses for their students and enable them to either miss or ignore a deadline.  No parent wants a teacher, or any other adult for that matter, telling him he is failing to raise a child properly because he allows his child to miss a deadline.  The issue of deadlines becomes a battle between a teacher’s and a parent’s morals and values. When a discrepancy exists between a teacher’s expected standard of behavior from her students, and a parent’s expectation of what his/her child should be held accountable for, teachers lose the battle due to pressure from counselors and administrators to accommodate the parent’s expectations of acceptable behavior to submit work days, weeks, months and would you believe, even a year after the due dates.

Case in point: Bart Simpson was a 9th grade student in my gifted English class. It was an accelerated course taught in 18 weeks, but covered 36 weeks worth of material. Whenever I assigned homework, Bart either did not do it, or he did not do it correctly or completely. I was always thorough in my explanation of homework citing examples prior to sending students off on their own to practice the skill or concept I was teaching. I also offered assistance before or after school, but Bart never took advantage of this.  Bart’s father called me to complain that Bart had too much homework; I explained the course covered a gifted curriculum, but Bart’s father’s expectations for the rigor of a 9th grade gifted English class conflicted with those set my school district.  Bart’s father called me on a regular basis to make excuses and ask for extensions for his child’s homework, tests and quizzes since Bart was also consistently absent whenever there was a quiz, test or project due. Bart’s father supported his child when Bart lied and said he had submitted homework to me on time, but I had lost it.  Bart’s father claimed that he had observed his child in his room completing homework, so his child had to have submitted his work to me.  The truth is Bart did lie to himself, to his father and to me; I never received the assignments, and this made me resort to collecting homework one by one and obtaining student signatures from those students who did not submit homework. This became a time consuming and inevitable practice, necessary to prevent me from being in a situation where it was my word against my students’, and I was going to lose. Believe it or not, Bart did not consider himself an underachiever, and he and his father were competitive about Bart’s GPA. Both he and his father argued with me all semester about deadlines because Bart wanted to earn an A for doing nothing; Bart was used to earning an A for doing nothing even in an affluent and highly acclaimed high school. Bart’s father wanted me to give his son extensions beyond the two days allotted for each day absent for all of Bart’s missed assignments. Bart’s other teachers allowed him to make up work beyond the time allotted and often exempted him from missed quizzes, tests and projects. I was a nonconformist and refused to take late work. Nevertheless, Bart ended up earning a low B average. Bart was absent for his final exam, so I had to make arrangements for him to take it over the summer with an administrator. Needless to say, Bart failed to meet yet another deadline, and had more time to study than his peers. I would be naïve to think he did not consult his peers about the questions on the test, or that his father did not condone Bart missing his final so he could earn a higher grade.

Although the student absentee policy required students to provide a doctor’s note or legitimate excuse for an absence, Bart had over 50 unexcused absences and early dismissals, yet he was still allowed extensions beyond the two day policy to make up class work, homework, tests and quizzes.  Many of Bart’s friends warned teachers that Bart was a con artist and was feigning illness so he could go home early and miss assignments when he felt he would not earn a passing grade. 

One year later, Bart is no longer my student.  He is a tenth grader but has developed more sophisticated ways to avoid deadlines. This time he is in my department chair’s 10th grade gifted English class.  She asks me about his past history, but before I provide her with any details, she tells me about his habit of slipping late assignments underneath her door at the end of the week, and he and his father claiming he had submitted them on time. Ironically, after my conversation with her about Bart, I receive a message from Bart’s father. At first I think, Bart’s father has mistaken me for Bart’s new teacher, but upon asking the counselor about Bart’s father’s message, she affirms he wants to speak to me.  Bart’s father wanted me to give his son another opportunity to take his final exam and to resubmit old assignments so Bart could earn a higher grade in freshman English; Bart’s father appealed to my “humanity”, claiming his son was under distress when he took the final exam in the summer.  I was appalled by Bart’s father’s audacity in asking me to retest his son and in demanding Bart resubmit assignments from the previous year.  I explained that Bart was no longer my student. This would be unethical and unfair to the other students and Bart was now in 10th grade. The course was closed. Bart had had the opportunity in the summer to choose the date he wanted to take his final. Bart’s father went up the chain of command to pressure me into retesting his son, so his son could earn an A in the class.  My department chair, who was Bart’s current teacher, and was now the victim of Bart’s manipulation, suggested that I rewrite and administer a new final to Bart, so I could keep Bart’s father happy since our school’s motto was a happy student makes a happy principal.  I said No! I told my department chair she had my authority to rewrite my final and administer it to Bart if she wanted, and so she did. This was one of many battles I lost because of parental pressures on teachers and administrators to ignore deadlines and in doing so overlook rules and policies.

Unfortunately, I learned more lessons from this experience, than Bart did in my class; I learned that many parents are only interested in ensuring their child earns an A even if the child learns absolutely nothing in the process. Feigning illness, lying, cheating and being absent on the day of a test, quiz or when a project is due is acceptable, and even if these tasks are previously assigned, and the teacher has provided a generous amount of time to complete them, submitting late work is better than submitting no work at all and teachers should accommodate students or risk placing undue pressure on a student’s self esteem, and creativity. Basically, requiring students to meet deadlines becomes inhumane in the eyes of these pseudo advocates for education.

Certainly, teachers decades ago did not face the same issues we face today with students not meeting deadlines. Today, teachers fear the backlash of not conforming to the demands of a parent requesting to negotiate a deadline. When and why did our country abandon the belief that punctuality was a virtue? When and why did we entitle our students and allow them to believe that they could choose when they wanted to complete their work? When did it become a burden and a choice rather than a requirement and a responsibility for a student to adhere to their teachers’ parameters?

Students need structure at all stages of learning, so do adults for that matter. Psychological research has proven that it is human nature to procrastinate if given an extensive amount of time to complete a task; most people will work more efficiently if they know there is a deadline looming ahead.

These so-called progressive educators may argue eliminating the “deadline” relieves pressure. In my teaching experience, not setting deadlines promotes procrastination, avoidance and laziness. Proactive and empowered teachers have developed consequences when students fail to meet deadlines, but unfortunately the climate is such that even when teachers equip themselves with foolproof strategies to document the slackers like Bart Simpson who fail to submit work on time, in the end, the students always win.

Regardless of interventions, strategies, technology, conferences and how reasonable or generous the amount of time you have allowed a student to complete an assignment, administrators and counselors do not want students to experience failure, or rather they say teachers should not fail students. By lifting deadlines, we often end up modifying assignments to such a watered down level there is little to no critical thinking involved, but students will feel successful and pass. Students do not learn anything, but they pass! Actually students are intuitive, they recognize when adults vacillate; they sense weakness and learn to manipulate the system. They catch on that adults are willing to exempt them from the rules to ensure students do not feel failure. 

Our failure to help students understand the sanctity of meeting deadlines is one of the most degenerating standards of American education. Our students are smart to recognize our willingness to compromise, but in the long run, they will not be intelligent enough to compete globally. Our fear of allowing students to fail will deteriorate their civility and their ability to function ethically. School allows students to practice so many life skills they will need as adults in real life; in the 21st century, our relaxed attitude about deadlines will backfire. Life has many non-negotiable deadlines our students will not be prepared to meet.


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