Are You an Advocate or Adversary for Your Students?

Recently I observed a student turn in a writing assignment to my colleague. The assignment was late. My colleague accepted the assignment with a very gracious (and sincere) smile and a couple of questions.

She asked the student, “Did you get it done the way you wanted? Are you satisfied with it?”

“Oh yes!” she responded. “I’m much happier with it now. Thank you for the extra time.”

I’ve worked with others who would response to this scenario would have been either to not accept the late work or to accept it with a reduction in points, credit, or grade—and also making sure the student felt a certain amount of shame or guilt for not meeting an assignment deadline. “Accountability.” he or she would argue. “How will students learn to meet deadlines and be accountable?”

From my perspective, the former’s approach establishes the teacher as the advocate of the student’s learning and the latter establishes the teacher as the adversary. The cynic might argue that the former is an enabler and the latter is pushing the students to achieve their best. I’m not sure they are mutually exclusive.

Which would you prefer as a response if you were the student, or if it was your own child? I personally would prefer the setting where the student is encouraged (enabled?) and supported to complete a task to the highest of his or her ability, completing work they have pride in—not just by a seemingly arbitrary deadline. Of course, as an advocate you also need to recognize dangerous procrastination that detracts from learning, and hold to the deadlines that aren’t arbitrary.

But, if you have established a culture of advocacy as opposed to one of adversary, then the struggles the student might have and the problems they will have to solve will be focused energy on understanding the content of the curriculum, not the teacher. And then the “tough love” sometimes required won’t feel personal or arbitrary from the student’s perspective.

So, are you your students’ advocate or adversary?


2 thoughts on “Are You an Advocate or Adversary for Your Students?

  1. I’ve had similar dialogue, usually in the context of the student coming to me in advance of the deadline and requesting an extension. I’m receptive provided this isn’t chronic, or indicative of the procrastination scenarios you cited. When appropriate, I look at the context of why the extension was required. If it was due to extenuating circumstances, then there isn’t really much need for any further dialogue, and you trust/hope it’s an isolated event. If it’s process-based, then I think this is where advocacy really pays off for both parties. The “Did you get it done the way you wanted? Are you satisfied with it?” exchange might be followed by something like, “If you were to do a similar assignment in the future, would you do anything differently?” Hopefully the student understands that the need for an extension was probably avoidable with minor modifications to the process. This leads to the realization of the extension as a teaching moment, often proving more valuable a lesson than the original assignment.

  2. There is the middle ground, where a student is supported in turning a work in late but knows that there is a consequence.

    And, of course, a student who has a pre-emptive discussion with a teacher/prof about the late work can be rewarded for that with an extension of a deadline. I’ve done that many times to support a student in both planning ahead and in knowing their limits. That’s an important way to support a student.

    But I am not a fan of suspending late penalties in general. I have also had far too many students who come, after the fact (or even after I’ve graded others’ work) and expect me to make allowances for them and their tardiness.

    As in all things, a little information and communication always helps. This should go both ways — the teacher trying to help the student figure out how to be more timely and the student being more in touch about what is going on in rare circumstances where timeliness is not possible. But to have an extreme of either position perverts the teacher/student role.

    Basically, I reiterate what Rich said (and should have read his comment before writing out all this so that I could just say “ditto.”).

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