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How I Handle Deadlines

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There was a time I was extremely rigid about deadlines. I was in my very early twenties and a new teacher. The sacredness of deadlines had been drilled into me from my earliest days at St. Helena’s Grammar School in The Bronx through my college years.

“Students have to learn the value of meeting deadlines on time and of prioritizing their work above everything else,” I thought. And, it’s my responsibility to help students experience the pleasures of meeting deadlines and the consequences of missing them, so they would develop good work habits and be ready to enter responsible adulthood. I was very strict about deadlines, taking off points for lateness depending upon the number of days. And, I admired teachers I knew who simply refused to accept late papers. Period.

As with so many things in those early years in my teaching, I was SO WRONG about this. 

What’s the Deal with Deadlines?

Before deadlines came to be known as the time a project or a submission is due, the word had a far darker meaning. The word deadline was used in the 1860s to indicate “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot” (Merriam Webster). 

I learned from a colleague of mine, Professor Maurice Sharton at Illinois State University that a group of lawmen (or vigilantes) in the Old West would gather fugitives or suspects and place them together alongside the posse’s camp. The lawmen would draw a line in the dirt around the group, giving them just enough room to stand together (or sit together, if the men were being humane). If the imprisoned men stepped past the line, they’d be shot immediately and killed.

Thus, the idea of disrespecting a deadline was considered a very bad idea and was associated with immorality and criminal behavior.

Wonderopolis, a popular education website, speculates that the term deadline as we know it today likely developed from the early days of printing, when anything outside the printing press guidelines would not make it onto the printed page. Thus, it would not make it to publication.

Despite these harsh beginnings and the positive PR that deadlines get, as an adult, I have found that they are rarely real. With the exceptions of job applications, grant applications, and some aspects of publication, deadlines are usually very flexible. Professionals ask for extensions all the time, and they usually get them. Even the IRS grants extensions for tax returns!

So what exactly are we training students into when we teach them that deadlines are sacrosanct? Whatever it is, it’s not about how to function as a responsible adult. (Maybe it’s more about teaching people to be compliant?)

The Nuts & Bolts of Deadlines

Here’s how I arrange deadlines. This method has worked really well for me.

  • I give an assignment with a deadline.
  • I also remind students of my deadline policy: You may have an extension. If you require an extension, you must email me BEFORE the deadline and request an extension. In your extension, please let me know how much additional time you need. I DO NOT ASK FOR ANY REASON. I make the assumption that students are only asking for an extension if they need it. I respect them enough to trust their judgment of their own circumstances.
  • My rule on extensions is: You can only have a second extension if you have a medical emergency or something of similar significance.
  • Sometimes students need help determining how much time they need. I tell them, “Take the time you need, but don’t give yourself so much time that you procrastinate.” This can be a longish conversation because the students don’t request enough time. It’s their decision, but I work hard to advise them well. Students frequently only ask for a day or even a few hours, and I have to work with them because I don’t want them to rush. I want them to do a good job. I find students are SO ANXIOUS about deadlines that they will not ask for the time they really need because they think taking more time is somehow a failure. It’s not a failure. It’s how writing works! Sometimes the words don’t come. That’s usually just fine in the world outside school. 

Are There Ever Problems?

Of course there are problems. Sometimes a student will ask for extensions repeatedly. Other times, students miss the extended deadline without contacting me. I always contact those students by asking them, “Are you ok?”

But in the large majority of cases, there is no problem. A few students–sometimes more–will get extensions, and they tend to get the assignment to me even before I’m done grading the rest of the batch. So it doesn’t even affect my time at all.

Middle school and high school teachers may not have as much flexibility with their time, but this method does prevent the need for threats or for long conversations with students about the problems of missing deadlines. I find the negotiations with students about deadlines and extensions a much better use of time. And I feel like the students become more authentic writers as a result.

It’s up to you to decide how you will use deadlines. Do you want to enforce compliance or educate authentic writers? Or, have you found another path?

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