Teachers say no late work - but parents, principal protest

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I remember on Open House night all the faculty would assemble in the gymnasium. The principal introduced teachers and gave an introductory speech. He praised the faculty and staff. Students would have a successful school year, he said, if they followed his motto: "Respect, restraint, and responsibility."

I had always looked forward to meeting parents on Open House night. I wanted them to see their children's work and get to know me. That night I told them about my background - I'd taught for 24 years - and added, "If your kids have told you I'm strict, I am!"

Applause broke out, with some nervous laughter. This was going to be a great bunch of parents and students.

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I talked mostly about curricular expectations and class rules. Because we were preparing eighth-graders for high school, we had higher expectations for them. This year, I told parents, "We are not accepting any late work unless a student is absent."

There was a little more applause.

"We feel that ... our students need to be organized, do their work, and hand it in on time. But ... the most important value we want them to learn this year is to be responsible...."

There was no applause, but one of the parents raised his hand. "Do you give any extra-credit work if they miss some assignments?" he asked. I told them it was time to wean students from that.

But motivating them to hand work in on time proved a real uphill battle. Some used the old "I left it at home" excuse. Others didn't even bother to offer reasons. Grades for the entire teaching team were low at the first mid-quarter.

At our team meeting, we all agreed on the problem: low test scores because of missing assignments. Most of us had progress reports that listed scores for each assignment, so there was little doubt. One teacher noted that none of her students who'd completed all assignments had bad grades. I warned them that parents would soon be screaming.

Then the phone calls began. Some parents blamed us. Some insisted that we call them whenever their children missed assignments. Some just blasted us because we refused to take late work. Some threatened to take us all to the principal. But we decided to stand firm.

None of us imagined what the following Monday would bring. The principal came to our team meeting and told us he'd gotten complaints. He said we should rethink our decision about accepting late work.

We had nowhere to go. We knew that teaching kids about deadlines was a very important lesson in growing up. We knew that if they handed in all their work on time, they'd have the underpinnings for the tests.

We decided to accept late work for 50 percent credit only if it was handed in the next class period. We felt that would keep parents happy, satisfy the principal, and cover ourselves.

But what happened? Students said they would hand it in late, but they rarely did. Most who hadn't done their work on time didn't bother to try for half credit.

So when parents say they want educators to set strict standards for their children, I am suspect. One mother told me that she expected teachers to be demanding, but didn't want her child to get a bad grade. Teachers need principals and parents to stand by them when they set high expectations. Teaching students to turn work in on time is not only a school lesson - it's a life lesson.

* Kathlyn E. Wieland, an educator for 24 years, recently retired from Oakville Junior High School, St. Louis.

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