Death and taxes (and deadlines)

Ask any high school student right now.  Deadlines seem to be about as certain as death and taxes.  

In a conversation I had with a G11 student this week, he shared how surprised he was that he was struggling with his deadline-management skills.

He was frustrated (perhaps a little angry?) that he was not more ready, even suggesting that school had not helped to prepare him to deal with continuous deadlines. Didn’t we know it was going to be like this?

I did not disagree with him and promised to sleep on it (clearly forgetting what a privilege that might appear to him at the moment)!

A conversation about deadlines

We’ve just completed our annual high school student well-being survey; there’s a section included where students can write free comments on the one thing that we could do to help improve their life at school.  Done well, these surveys are always an uncomfortable read.  Well, it looks like we’ve done it well…

Our students in Grades 9 and 10 are sharing that the constant focus on tests and exams (GCSEs), as well as a competitive culture, is having the biggest impact on their mental health and well-being.*  Likewise, our students in Grades 11 and 12 are sharing that the management of never-ending deadlines (we do the IB Diploma Programme) is the cause of the most stress for them.  

We know that deadline stress is a well-known running sore that all IB schools grapple with (so were not surprised by the student feedback); however, is there more that we can do to help students who might need help developing their time management or organisational skills; who might not know how to advocate for themselves when they need to request extensions; who are heavily committed; or who might not be sleeping or eating as well as they would wish to? (I know that’s a rhetorical question…)

A continuum of approaches 

I find that when talking about student deadlines that there is a continuum of approaches schools take toward student deadlines.

On one end of the spectrum, deadlines are fixed and non-negotiable.  And on the other end of the spectrum, they are flexible and open to negotiation.  Not surprisingly, schools, administrators, teachers, parents, or students rarely find themselves occupying the same part of that continuum.  

If and when students hand them in on time, come what may, all is well (on the surface at least).  Perhaps the student needed support ahead of the deadline, or perhaps not.  However, regardless of whatever approach the school or the teacher thinks they have in place, there will nearly always be a number of students who are unable to meet the stated deadline.  

Different conversations emerge from this reality…especially when deadline extensions are requested.  Here are 7 that have (probably) taken place over the last few weeks in many schools:

1. The “in the real world” conversation.

Please could I have more time to submit my coursework?

I told you at the start of the course that deadlines are deadlines.  They are non-negotiable.

But, other teachers have given me an extension.  

Well, I mean what I say.  This is how deadlines work in the real world.  

But I have other deadlines due at the same time and I want to be able to hand in my best work.

Look, I realise you think I am being hard on you.   But I know that what you give me will be great – you are not going to be happy until you think it is perfect, but sometimes we just have to accept that we have done the best we can in the time given and move on to the next thing.  You got this.

2. The “not this time” conversation.

Please could I have more time to submit my coursework?

Sorry, but this is the final deadline so that’s not possible.

But you let me hand in my last piece of work after the deadline.

Because that wasn’t a real deadline.  I said that because I wanted to spread out our coursework throughout the year.  Otherwise, we just end up having it all to do at the end of the year.  This way, you only have this final piece to concentrate on.

3. The “slippery slope” conversation.

Please could I have a little more time to submit my coursework?

Sorry, I am doing all the marking this weekend.

Please, I really need the weekend to finish it off and give you my best work.

If I let you hand it in later, then others will want to hand it in later too. This means I will end up marking people’s late work for several more weekends when I also have other classes to prepare for.  That’s not fair to anyone, including me.

4. The “fairness” conversation.

Please could I have more time to submit my coursework?

Sorry, but If I give you extra time it would give you an unfair advantage compared to all the others who have managed to keep to the deadline. 

5. The “it’s for your own good” conversation?

6. The “it comes down to respect” conversation!? 

7. The unspoken conversation.  

I feel so lost.  I can’t keep up.  I don’t know where to start, or what to do next.  I have so much to do.  I have so many deadlines due and I just want it all to go away.  I’m so tired. I already know I should have handled this situation differently but here we are and I need help now.

I am sure that there are countless others.  But together they highlight a number of tensions and talking points when we deal with deadlines in schools.

Are we really teaching about real life?

We like to think that we are in the business of preparing young people for “real life”. We tell them this on a daily basis (which must irritate them as much as irritated me when I was at school).  But when we tell them that deadlines are not negotiable in real life, is that really true?  I love this article here, and this recent HBR article too on the subject of real-world deadlines.

Can one size fit all?

Another reality is that no student has the same commitments and priorities as any other student in the school.  Different subject choices, different teachers, different classes, different activities, and any number of different things going on in their lives.  A colleague (really good with big numbers) once shared with me the number of different permutations of student schedules in our school and the fact that we do not have any two identical schedules.  

With that in mind, we want students to take responsibility for managing both their schedule and their own deadlines.  We would want a student who finds themselves with a schedule that has several deadlines due in the same week that they are highly committed to something else outside of the academic programme (sports, production, interviews etc), to advocate for themselves, right? Isn’t negotiating multiple commitments more reflective of real life?   

Is this how we teach?

Deadlines are as certain as death and taxes.  When students struggle with them, we have a choice:

We can apply sanctions to try and teach them this life lesson (zero marks, no feedback etc.) Or we can try and teach them any of the self-management skills that they might need.  

But before trying to decide if either choice (even assuming it is a binary one) is preferable, I would ask this question:

Where else in your school do you employ sanctions to teach essential life lessons?  

Is there room for tough love?

What about those students who are overly preoccupied with achieving perfection?  They don’t want to know about “good enough”.  Some students (so many in our context) have developed a belief that any and all additional time will get them closer to perfection, closer to a higher grade.  So here, the learning that might take place could be different to another student who is struggling with deadlines in a different way.  Perfectionism can be driven by a number of different factors but is obviously heightened when the stakes are so high, or where there is an inordinate amount of pressure to do well to meet their own or parental expectations.  Might there be a place here, a kindness even, in helping these students to accept fixed deadlines?  Maybe “good enough” is more than enough. 

Is it really a deadline?

If you’ve spent any time in The Netherlands, you will soon notice that the Dutch have a different word for almost every type of rain.  The ancient Greeks apparently had six words for “love”, all with different meanings.  And when you go for a “coffee” these days…it’s actually a latte or cappuccino for me.   It’s the same thing with the word “deadline”.  One word: but many different meanings.  It could equally refer to a “milestone”, or a “submission date”, a “first draft deadline”, a “final draft deadline”, a “school deadline”, or even an “IB deadline”.  In the same way, when we talk about deadlines we are unlikely to be using the same word to mean the same thing.  

So when schools, departments, and teachers do not differentiate or clarify their use of the word “deadline” (perhaps because they want students to believe that their own deadline is the most important one) then it should be no surprise that students can feel overwhelmed by them.  After all, when everything is a deadline, nothing is a deadline.

Is bias at play?

Each of those conversations above is an example of students advocating for themselves.  They either have the confidence to ask for more time, they/ve been told to ask if it is needed,  they feel that it is perfectly reasonable to ask, or they have been supported to ask.  However, for every student who might request a deadline extension, there will be many others who do not.  Most of the time I imagine that this is because they have no need to ask. But when you work with children from many different cultural contexts, each with teachers from many different backgrounds too, can we assume that they did not ask for more time because they just didn’t need it, or for some other reason?

Is there a need to question whether we are inadvertently privileging those students who are confident in advocating for themselves, or from cultures and contexts that perceive deadlines and schedules as flexible rather than fixed?  Have we inadvertently built in some cultural bias to the way that we support students?  Erin Meyer, in her book The Culture Map might argue that some of this is being played out in each of the conversations I shared above. So I think It’s something we would want to explore for sure.  

Where next?

I started this article with the promise to sleep on the issue of school deadlines.  But it seems to me that it’s going to take a bit more than that to solve this one…I think I’ll go back to that student and ask for a little extension of my own! 


* We are currently in the process of phasing out GCSEs here so we are hoping that this will make a difference here as we have now broadened our bespoke concept-based curriculum from K-10.

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