Have you ever been given a deadline for a task for which you were not qualified to complete? Perhaps you thought you were capable, at first, only to discover later that you were not equipped to succeed or see it through. Or you just knew it was lousy work but it was the best you could muster.

What did that feel like, knowing a deadline was right around a corner? A surge of anxiety pours over, perhaps, followed by unexpected pangs of panic and paralysis? Eventually, the panic gives way to a sense of helplessness, leading to an eventual feeling of complete powerlessness. A sense that all agency and efficacy have been stripped away. It’s one of the worst feelings ever. And it rarely rears its head without its accomplice, namely desperation.

And we wonder why students cheat (but more on that later).

Much has been written about the student mental health crisis we’re experiencing at this post-pandemic moment. Much has been written about the importance of meaning, purpose, and belonging when addressing this crisis, but not as much has been written about a fourth factor, namely the role of competence, especially in the context of time-driven approaches to schooling which involve deadlines, ends of terms, and a varied distribution of levels of student achievement. Competence is an integral part of wellness, but there’s tension when time remains the driver for moving students along.

Two important truths are at play here:

  1. Different learners master the same skills in varied amounts of time, meaning time varies, from learner to learner, if we want mastery to be the constant.
  2. Meeting deadlines is an important work habit that contributes to our success in life, and sometimes in life, the amount of time we’re given for a task is a non-negotiable constant.

With these truths in mind, the question becomes which of the following real-world examples gives us a better understanding of how to handle deadlines as well as how not to when it comes to the calculation of grades and the measurement of learning:

Example One: I have two daughters, one is 5 years old and the other is 7. They couldn’t be more different when it comes to their personality, interests, as well as how and when they learn certain things. My first daughter learned to walk at a very different moment in her development when compared to my youngest daughter. Of course, there was no deadline for that milestone, and even though they learned at different times, they are both very proficient walkers, movers, and shakers. Mastery was the constant , but the timing varied considerably in those early years.

Example Two: I entered the workforce shortly after graduate school, starting my career as a young English and history instructor in Brooklyn, NY. After writing a letter of interest, gathering recommendation letters from respected professionals, and engaging in a rigorous day-long interview process, my would-be supervisor hired me with the expectation and assessment that I had a proficient understanding of my content area as well as how to engage students in that material. Shortly after, I got my first deadline: I had to prep my courses by building units, gathering materials, and designing assessments, which needed to be ready to go come August 1st of that summer. It was a lot of work, and although I lacked the experience I have now, I was competent enough to complete the task. I’ve continued to have deadlines as my responsibilities have expanded over the years, but that increase in demand was preceded by a growth in competence.

The point here is that my “growth” as a professional had no deadline. It could have taken me 5 years, 10 years, or 20 years to get to where I am. That, of course, depends on so many factors – factors that are not the focus of this post. However, when I became more competent, I moved on to new responsibilities in my career, which is exactly the point with a competency-focused approach to education, which makes me wonder about how we handle deadlines when it's really about "growth."

In Example One, the “primary user” if you will is a learner who lacks competence at what they’ve been asked to master, and the bottom line, in this situation, is prioritizing learning and growth. In Example Two, the “primary user” is a competent employee whose skill proficiency has already been assessed to some extent, and the bottom line, in this scenario, is the mission of the company, which in most cases involves maximizing profits and strengthening one’s presence in a marketplace. So which of these analogies serves as a more accurate comparison when considering the healthiest way to address work habits in a K12 environment?

If grades are meant to measure and document the growth of learning, to chart a student’s journey towards mastery, should we penalize missed deadlines by weaponizing our instrument for measuring learning? Are grade penalties the way to handle this? Is that reflective of real life when we consider the user is a novice and the bottom line is about growth?

My first daughter walked at 11 months, but my youngest daughter didn’t master it until she was 12 months old. Should I have stopped my 2nd daughter at 11 months, or made it harder for her to get there because of a lack of timeliness? Of course not, that would be absurd.

The real point I’d like to get at is this: when we advocate for addressing missed deadlines through means other than grade deductions, many skeptics argue that we are not preparing students for the real world – a world where there’s consequences for missing your deadlines. My provocation is that giving kids deadlines when they are not proficient practitioners is not an accurate simulation of actual real world deadlines. I would go so far as to say that, in really rigid environments, it could have the opposite effect of driving kids to adopt unhealthy coping strategies for dodging responsibility in the future because too often in their past they were given deadlines in developmental moments when they were not equipped to competently complete the task. This gets back to the mental health crisis mentioned earlier, and the question of preparation versus impairment.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating for no deadlines. I’m not suggesting we don’t hold students capable through intervention, coaching, and relational partnerships. We just can’t do that by weaponizing grades and by pretending that every student learns to walk at the same time. And when they cheat, go back to the first two paragraphs of this post, and read slowly before reacting. Kids want to do the right thing; they want to learn, but desperate circumstances unfortunately provoke desperate actions, or in the case of missing deadlines, disengagement when the crisis of competency becomes too overwhelming.