My child’s teacher refused to accept his late homework assignment and gave him a zero for it. I can understand taking a few points off, maybe even half, but it seems extreme to refuse it at all.

If you’re late for an airplane, what are the consequences? Do they take you halfway to your destination on the next flight?

If you’re late making your car payments, do they just add on to your bill? Or do they repossess your car?

In the first case, you don’t go anywhere. Being late dooms your plans. In the second, you’ve got at least a decent shot at just paying a late fee and keeping your car. But there’s also a chance they come and take it. Or that your credit score is ruined which can prevent you from getting a car, apartment or loan in the future.

Whatever the case, the penalties in the real world for not being on time can be severe, so it makes sense that schools should prepare their students for this eventuality.

In fact, schools generally reflect the same degree of vicissitude concerning late work that the real world does. Some teachers will take late work whenever the student feels like handing it in, no penalty assigned − like a struggling hair stylist who will keep booking you even when you don’t show up for your appointments. Some will deduct points or offer half credit, sort of like the government with your taxes.

For this stunning turn of events − that schools are actually preparing your child for real life − you should be grateful, not grumpy.

My view as a teacher is that every assignment and class policy should have two objectives: a primary one based in the curriculum and an invisible one based in character.

When I first started teaching, I sought to do the opposite of every teacher that had annoyed me in school. Thus my late submission policy was quite liberal: a modest deduction of 5 points a day. My rationale was “I just want them to do the work and better late than never.”

I had not yet realized that part of “the work” was doing it within the time I had allotted and submitting it when due. That’s the “character” portion of the assignment. Time management, reliability, responsibility and punctuality are important traits; they are the “shadow standards” (the workforce calls them “soft skills”) involved in doing the work and turning it in punctually.

What I soon discovered was that lots of students weren’t like me. I would have complied to avoid the 5 points off. They didn’t care at all. These were students whose parents threw parties when they brought home all C’s. So they’d wait a week or more to turn it in or not at all if it involved too much effort.

There was another problem. If I assigned a theme due in five days, it meant the student should take five days to work on the theme − writing, rewriting, editing, etc. But when students turned in their work late, it wasn’t because they weren’t quite done. It was because they hadn’t even started. They would do all of the work − sloppily − the night before they felt like turning it in, which was usually right before my second deadline.

Worse still, I discovered as the year went on that the number of kids turning in things late was increasing. I had a friend who didn’t make any deductions for late work and she said that kids often wouldn’t submit assignments until after report cards were given and they’d seen their failing grade.

This was all madness to me, so the next year I went the other way: no work accepted late for credit. Yes, some kids had to adapt and they did. And some didn’t and they didn’t care. I ended up with a few kinds of students: those who turned in their work on time and those who never did it at all. I was proud of the first group who rose to the expectations and I found ways of dealing with the second group that made them better in the long run.

But there was a third kind of student: those who turned work in late, but only once. After receiving the tough penalty for their tardiness, they learned the lesson that things were due when they were due and they learned that it was totally within their power to accomplish that mission. I was very proud of this group, too. Even though a zero is a tough mathematical pill to swallow, it had the effect of helping to cure the common student disease called “irresponsibility.”

It’s much better to be proud of your children for strengthening their character at the expense of a better grade than for getting a better grade at the cost of their character. I think if you give your son a chance to fix his own behavior and support the teacher who believes he can do it, you’ll find a lot to be proud of, too.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. He is the recipient of the 2018 first place award in column writing from the South Carolina Press Association. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at and on Twitter @stallings_jody.