How to Handle Late Work

Middle School Classroom

I open my mailbox, and out falls my electric bill onto my porch. As I pick it up, it makes me think–my students should really learn to “pay their bills” on time in my classroom. After all, I think all teachers are in education for more than just the subject that they teach. I imagine, if you’re anything like me, you’d much rather have your students remember that they’re important, that respect is of utmost value, that learning is lifelong, and that kindness and hard work can get you really far in life.

So, whenever my students used to ask me to turn in assignments late, I would usually take them, followed by saying “…but, just so you know, you’ve already lost quite a few points on this because it was due last week.”

When I would conference with parents, they’d ask how their students were doing, and I had to break it to them that their last essay score was a low C, not because they didn’t understand the concept, but because they turned it in 9 days late.

I felt proud of myself. I was teaching them responsibility, after all.

But, I was neglecting one of the most important parts of my job: encouraging students to learn (and yes, especially those students who may not have a great support system at home to check their assignments and work on homework with them, as it was mostly these students who wouldn’t do their work on time)

Plus, was it even fair that some students were nearly failing because they turned assignments in late? Aren’t grades about learning? That’s just how it always was when I was in school…

I was stuck. I wanted them to love learning and of course I wanted them to complete assignments. I didn’t get any joy out of taking letter grades off of their work for it being late, but I also pictured many hard working students up (as I would have when I was a kid) until 9:00 working on that essay after baseball practice to get work done. It just wasn’t fair. I didn’t feel like students who didn’t do their work should just get a free pass. Plus, I do believe there’s some “cost” to “not paying your bills on time.”

But, what if I let the electric bill blow away, and so I didn’t pay it… then whenever I tried to call them to pay over the phone past due, they told me that I had two options: to either not receive electricity anymore, or pay the late fee of an extreme $400.

I’d be devastated. After all, we all make mistakes, right?

As I’ve been working on the craft of teaching, I’ve found a solution to my dilemma (and maybe your’s too): a Responsibility Grade.


A responsibility grade is its own column in my grade book.

Here are the rules for my Responsibility Points:

  • Because I expect my students to be responsible, I give each student 10 points at the beginning of the marking period.
  • Students can lose points, but cannot gain them back once they are lost.
  • To keep all of their points, they must submit everything on time, have their book everyday, and complete their warm up at the beginning of class. (You, of course, could have your own rules. Regardless, I make mine about effort and the responsibility surrounding that.)
  • If a student makes a mistake once (or rarely), I usually overlook it. I try to give my students the respect I would expect.
  • If they are a repeat offender, they begin to lose points. For example, if they turn their essay in a day or two late, they would lose a responsibility point. If they forgot their book for the second day in a row, they would lose a responsibility point. I continue to take points off until the issue is resolved.
  • I don’t really “advertise” this, but, for example, if they are ten days late on handing in a project, I don’t take all of their 10 points away. Again, I try to give them the respect I’d wish for.
  • Their responsibility points go back to 10 at the beginning of the next marking period.

This has worked wonders for my classroom for several reasons.

First, it encourages my students to continue handing in late work (and thus LEARNING) because they know they can still earn 100% on whatever they are handing in. They are okay with losing some responsibility points in the separate grade column and understand the fairness of the consequence. Plus, losing a couple responsibility points doesn’t tank their grades, and keeping all 10 points for my hard workers is an extra little boost for them.

Also, whenever I am giving feedback at meetings or with parent conferences, I can now speak confidently in their actual progress and knowledge on the topics I taught them. On a similar note, if their overall grade is lower than expected because of their responsibility points, this can also be a talking point about transitioning in middle school, etc.

Lastly, whenever I include elements such as bringing their book to class or completing their warm up, it makes my students more accountable during class, too, not just outside of class. I use a LOT of positive reinforcement with my students during class, but some kids just need a little harsh reality sometimes that if they aren’t going to complete their work, they won’t be getting the credit for responsibility points today. This usually helps me with my classroom management in more extreme situations.

If you try this grading system in your classroom, comment to let me know how it goes! How else do you handle late work in your classroom?

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