Relationship Building

To Finish or Not to Finish? How to Deal with Slow Workers and Non-Finishers (Ep. 055)

There are very few things that annoy us more than those kids that take FOREVER to finish their work. Andrew and Tim talk about the work that never seems to get finished, and the reasons behind it. They discuss how to differentiate between the meticulous students and the disinterested ones (5:45), how to deal with both the perfectionists and the procrastinators (8:15), and whether you can ever use grades as punishment (10:45). They close the show talking about some motivation tactics and the best ways to get kids back on track. Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick.

One of the frustrations we as art teachers have in the classroom is pacing. I feel it more this year than at any other time I’ve had, that struggle to keep your classes moving along at a good clip, but keeping students all roughly at the same speed. Now, if you’re full-on TAB, this issue of pacing may not even be an issue, but I’m not there yet. I offer choice, but I’m still looking for students to complete the same number of artworks and to do that to show me that they’re learning.

Those students that move too slowly, they can honestly be a little bit frustrating. We’re never going to make every student happy when it comes to pacing. Some are going to think we’re moving too fast, and others are going to think that the class is going too slow. Those kids always have multiple days where they feel like they’ve got nothing that they need to work on. That’s a whole nother level of frustration.

I want to talk specifically about those kids that are moving too slowly, so I’m going to bring on Tim to talk about why we think those students are moving so slowly and why they’re so frustrating. We’re going to talk about if there’s anything that we can do to motivate these students to move a little faster. This might be a really weird question to ask, but should we even motivate these kids to move faster? I mean what if that affects the quality of their work? Are there different reasons why students are working so slowly?

Tim is going to help me get down to the bottom of that. This entire episode is focused on speed and kind of why that’s so frustrating. I think that those slow students are frustrating in regards to pacing. One of the things I think that makes them so frustrating is that it makes it hard to assess them. Is it fair to penalize a great student who works slowly and doesn’t get all the projects done? Is it fair to keep making those faster students do extra projects to keep them busy while the slower kids are moving on? Assessment can be really tricky.

What better way to brush up on the best practices than taking AOE’s Assessment in Art Education course? In this class, you’ll design your own comprehensive toolkit that works for you and your students and deals with multiple types of assessments. Assessments is a three-credit course, and new sections start up every month, so head on over to and check out this course and all the other great courses under the courses tab.

I’m excited to share this talk that Tim and I had on those kind of slower students, as it was a rare podcast for us, that we were actually able to get together in person and record. Usually, we do it remotely, Omaha to Des Moines, Nebraska to Iowa. I think Tim actually enjoyed kind of crawling through my room and finding all sorts of weird stuff. He found this old poster of mine, and he just would not let it go. I had to pry it from his hands and insist that we start recording. All right, so I hope you enjoy the talk on how to get those slow kids maybe moving a little bit faster.

All right, so joining me today is Tim Bogatz. How are you doing, man?

Tim: I am doing great. I am excited to talk to you about the kids that annoy me a whole bunch.

Andrew: You don’t have any of those, right? You’re just such an easygoing guy. You love everybody.

Tim: Man, something like that.

Andrew: Yeah. To be serious, I know that one of the toughest things for people, for art teachers out there, are those kids, and we all have them, that just, man, they never seem to finish a project, or they just take months and months and months, or maybe they never even get finished. Let’s talk about those kids. Why do we find them so annoying?

Tim: Man, for me, it’s because as a teacher, I’ve got stuff to do, man, like there are so many things that you want to teach kids. There are so many cool things that you want to share with them, so many opportunities that you want to give them and you want to see them participate in, things you want them to learn. They just can’t get to any of them because they’re so slow at what they’re doing. Just talking about it is frustrating.

Andrew: I can see it. Yeah. Yeah, I can tell.

Tim: I think that’s the biggest thing for me, where you have so much that you can get to, so much that you want to get to, and you’re just being held back, and not you personally, but this kid is not getting the opportunities that they could out of your class because it’s so tough for them to get things finished. What about you? Why do slow finishers bother you?

Andrew: Well, I’m going to be honest with you. Slow finishers do not … this won’t be a surprise to you. They don’t bother me as much as they bother you. They do kind of irritate me a little bit, but I’m going to be honest, the ones that irritate me more are actually like super fast finishers. I think we’re going to have to maybe …

Tim: Yeah, we need to talk about that, too.

Andrew: Yeah, maybe like a different podcast or something. I think they’re challenging. Maybe that’s what I mean. More than irritating, slow finishers are challenging because like you said, you’re ready to move on. You’ve got some things to cover. I have flexible deadlines, so I’m fine. There’s no penalty for you taking a little bit longer. Take as much time as you need. I do think I have plenty of students that take advantage of that and think that they can always just push the art class project to the back burner.

Then what happens to them is like, okay, it’s almost the end of the semester, and you have four missing assignments because you’ve never finished any of them. I actually think that can be challenging because you’re going to feel like you’re running multiple different projects and curriculums, but I almost feel bad for the students. I actually think we need to kind of differentiate between why is this happening because there’s always those kids that we feel like, well, they’re just slow because they’re kind of like really detailed and meticulous. Then there’s other kids.

How do you kind of differentiate between a kid who’s seriously straight up procrastinating and screwing around and then someone who is just slow and meticulous?

Tim: Yeah. Well, I’ll answer that in just a second, but I want to go back to something you said about the flexible deadlines. I think that works really well for those kids who are detailed, kids who want to put a lot of effort into their work. Those flexible deadlines are really nice for them, and you don’t have to put a lot of effort in there because you know that they’re going to get done with those. You know they’re going to do a great job.

For those kids who are procrastinating and taking advantage of that opportunity to turn things in any time, that flexible deadline actually can end up making more work for you as a teacher because you have to spend so much time chasing them down. “Is this going to get done? Is this going to get done?” You would like to give them all that responsibility, but as a teacher, you still need to keep up on that. I don’t know. It can make it difficult.

For me, as far as the difference between procrastination and kids working slowly, I think you just need to be on top of what’s happening in your room. I think even just a cursory look around your room every day can tell you which kids are working hard, and it’s just going to take them longer, versus which kids are really messing things up and not doing what they need to be doing. I think it’s just a different conversation that you have with each of those kids.

The kids who are putting so much effort in, so much detail in, for me, it’s just a matter of encouragement, where you’re like, “Hey, this is looking great. I know it’s going to take you a little while longer, but remember, you can turn it in any time. We’re not going to count this late. I just want you to make sure that this is excellent.” That’s an easy conversation to have.

When your kids are procrastinating, you have to decide, like are you going to kick them in the butt? Are you going to add some rewards? How would you deal with that? I think it’s much tougher, and it really is on the teacher to kind of read that personality and figure out what’s going to be best for that kid.

Andrew: One of the things you’re kind of talking about is punishments and encouragements. Do you encourage them? Do you punish them? I want to get back into that in a second, but I want to tell you an experience I’ve had with a student, and there’s a couple like this. You let me know if you think I’m out of whack here.

Tim: Okay.

Andrew: I have a couple of students who are clearly not procrastinating. They really are the most type A, meticulous, detail-oriented students in the world. Their work is awesome, but they’re finishing about half the quantity, half the volume that the other kids are doing because they’re just taking so dang long. Okay, so I only have a couple of kids like that. I have a bunch of kids who are procrastinators …

Tim: Yes. Yes.

Andrew: … who are not turning stuff in because they’re looking at their phone. They’re talking to their friend. They’re not remembering to take it home. It’s like the responsibility and the behavior, that’s their fault, right?

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: Okay. The kids who I know are screwing around and procrastinating, I have no problem giving them what in Infinite Campus we call an M, so a missing, a zero, so their grade looks really, really bad.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: Mom and dad get up in arms. Study hall teacher gets up in arms. The kid is all upset because now they have an F. Well, fix it. That’s your problem. The kid who is actually working their butt off and just super slow, I’m actually taking some of their assignments, and I’ll say, “You don’t have to do this one because you’re showing me on the project that is late, the one before this one that everyone else is doing, you’re achieving at such a high level, I don’t even want you to worry about this new one. I just want you to finish that old one.”

Now, that’s some real differentiation. One kid might get done 10 projects. One might get five or six. Am I out of whack here, or do you think that’s fair?

Tim: No, I think it is fair. It’s something that I always did in the classroom. I think, yeah, differentiation is the right word for it because I would rather have some really high quality work than have kids rushing to get one done, so they can rush to get the next one done and just have this backup of projects that they’re rushing through. I’d rather have them be proud of their work, put the effort they need in to make it excellent.

I have no problem excusing them from future projects if you know that they’re spending their time well. There may be a lot of people that disagree with us on that, but I think you and I are on the same page.

Andrew: Then doesn’t that seem like you’re trying to punish then the kids that you think are procrastinating by like, “Oh, I’m going to hold you accountable, and you’re going to do all 10 projects come hell or high water,” or is that okay because they need that?

Tim: Yeah, I am punishing those kids. I have no problem saying that. No, I mean I don’t want to do grades as punishment. The point is, kids need to be held accountable. Kids who are working really hard, what do they need to be held accountable for? If you can answer that for me, then sure, maybe I’ll listen to you about why I need to grade them down. I think, amongst other behaviors, you need to deal with whether or not kids can turn in work.

I think as a teacher, you’re negligent if you’re vindictive with your grading, like, “Oh, that kid was just on their phone on Monday and with their friends Tuesday and Wednesday and then doing nothing on Thursday. They get a zero.” You need to talk to the kid. You need to call home. You need to put effort in to getting that kid to work and not just sit behind your computer and go, “Zero, zero, zero, zero.” You need to make an effort to get them going.

I guess I say flippantly I am punishing those kids, but it’s more about holding them accountable. The grade should be the last resort on that. It’s not the first thing that you do to try and solve that problem.

Andrew: Well, and I think we’re both in agreement that grades that … as art teachers, no one likes grading. No one likes giving out grades.

Tim: Right.

Andrew: It seems arbitrary. Grades should never be sort of a punitive or like a reward sort of system, that it should be just a neutral, “Here’s what you know. Here’s what you can do.” I want to ask you this, and I know this isn’t necessarily a podcast episode about grading, but this has come up in some of the AOE classes I’ve been teaching, the idea of giving students daily or weekly sort of participation grades based on, really, let’s be honest, behavior and focus.

My stance has been … because I used to do that, and I stopped doing it a while ago because I felt like the students that were habitually getting bad grades on their daily or weekly sort of behavior, “you were a good boy or girl” sort of grades, also then were making crappy artwork. The reason that they were making crappy artwork that didn’t show me they had learned much was because they were not focused.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: I felt like even in like legalese, I was putting them in double jeopardy.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: I was punishing them twice for basically the same offense.

Tim: Exactly what I was going to say.

Andrew: Okay.

Tim: I actually wrote an article about this. I believe it was titled Can We Please Stop with the Participation Grades? Like you said, you’re punishing kids a couple times for the same thing. For me, it just comes down to this, like the kids who are receiving high scores for participation don’t need those points.

Andrew: Right.

Tim: The kids who are losing those points cannot afford to lose those points, and it’s really just so redundant. Now, there are some exceptions. I know a lot of teachers grade on studio habits, like effort and putting things forward, and it’s very much about the process, about what they’re doing every day. In that effect, in that space, I can definitely justify that. Otherwise, like you said, you’re grading behavior, and you’re not grading artwork or knowledge. I have a problem with participation grades, and I don’t think it’s a good motivator for those slow finishers.

Andrew: Well, and I also think it’s a crap ton of work for us as teachers to do. You have how many hundreds of kids? If you’re doing daily or weekly grades … and let’s be honest. If you are giving a kid a six out of 10, bad behavior, bad boy, four weeks in a row, you’re probably just going to auto fill weeks five through 18 because that kid ain’t changing, right?

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: Then it’s like, are you really being even fair with this unfair system? I’ll change it up here and get off my high horse about how I don’t like those because if it works for you, I mean who am I to say that it can’t work? It didn’t work for me, and it was a time suck, and I had to get rid of it. Let’s switch it up, and let’s actually talk then on the more encouragement side.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: We’ve talked punishment and punishment and kind of how ineffective it is. What sort of specific techniques or methods then do we have to get those kids who are … maybe they’re procrastinating. Maybe they’re meticulous. How do we get those kids working more quickly?

Tim: Yeah, I don’t know, a big thing for me is just working one on one with the kid. A lot of times, that’s difficult. There are plenty of times during class where you can go sit down next to them. Let’s say you’re 10 minutes into class. Their project is not even out. If everybody else is working, you can go sit down next to them with your sketchbook and, “Hey, where’s your project? Why aren’t you working on it?” They’ll eventually go get it out, and then you can start up on a conversation with them about how it’s going.

You can check to make sure that they understand the assignment. You can make sure they know what they want to do, and then you can encourage them, like give them some specific examples. “Hey, what if you tried this in the background? Hey, what if you added some more detail here? “That really gives them a very clear direction on where they can go with that project because a lot of times it is a matter of knowledge, a matter of focus. You can solve some of those problems in five minutes.

If they’re just sort of flighty and not wanting to work, distracted by other things, a lot of times just your presence right there doing your own work will get them to do their work as well. I think honestly, that’s the most effective thing for me with those kids who are refusing to work or procrastinating.

If we go to those kids who are just putting maximum effort into that, and they’re not finishing because of the time they’re spending, for me, it’s just a matter of encouragement, where I’ll remind them about flexible deadlines, like, “I don’t care when I get this. I just want to make sure it’s your best work. You have plenty of time. Keep going with it. This is awesome.” Point out to them what you really like about it and just encourage them to finish it to the best of their ability.

Like you said, I think if you’re able to differentiate that and you can accept things a little bit differently, you’re going to get the best work from those kids. I don’t know. What about you? What are your big strategies that help?

Andrew: Well, I think with the procrastinators, we’re pretty much on the same line. It’s like just the most simple classroom management strategy, which is proximity, get close to them, let them know that the sort of behavior that’s keeping them off task and not completing, that you’re not okay with it. To some degree, though, I have softened a little bit because I feel like there’s plenty of students who have never learned to play school well, so they’re not organized.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: Maybe they’re not an auditory listener, so they hear something, but it doesn’t sink in. I’ve been talking to a lot of my students lately about crossing the finish line because almost all of my students who have missing assignments or getting bad grades and not turning artwork in, they’re really darn close. It’s like, “Dude, all you had to do was this last little bit and then turn it in.” As a teacher, I’ve learned that I can’t assume that they can do it on their own.

I will try to do whatever I can. Despite how silly I think it is that I have to literally show you again for the 17th time how to turn this assigment in on our learning management system, I will still do that. Then I want to flip it to the people who are just really, really meticulous. One of the things that I’ve been trying to model and talk to them about is perfection is super overrated.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: Come on now. Screw perfection. Let’s just call it … we don’t have to have it be great. At some point as an artist and as a person who makes things … because I mean no artist has ever thought they were done with their artwork. It’s like there’s always something you could fix. At some point, you’ve just got to say, “This is pretty darn good, and I’m going to move on.” Now, that’s something that two, three years ago I probably did not subscribe to because I’m like, “I only ever want your best.”

Then when I see these kids who are so type A and so meticulous, it’s like, oh, man, like at some point we’ve got to call good enough, good enough and turn it in and move on to the next thing. There’s more to learn than just these two or three projects that you’re stretching on forever and ever and ever. I will say, I have a couple of students in mind, I think some of that message is starting to sink in a little bit. They’re not making crappy work. They’re still making very good work, but they’ve kind of learned it’s okay to not obsess over every tiny, tiny little detail. It just takes time, I think.

Tim: Yeah, when you put it like that, it makes more sense, but I still want their best work.

Andrew: Well, I think we can agree to disagree on that one a little bit. Well, thanks, man. Thanks, Tim. I think we’re going to have to do that second episode of those kids who drive me even more nuts, the fast finishers.

Tim: That sounds good, man. I’m ready for it.

Andrew: All right. Well, talk to you later.

Tim: Thanks.

Andrew: Yeah. It was nice for me to personally hear that my policy on grading versus not grading those quality students that just work a little slower wasn’t too off base. I know that Tim and I often discuss this whole process versus product stance. If we really subscribe to process over product, that process is more important, I think being flexible with how we assess speed and progress is an important thing to think about. Sure, if a student is just messing around, I think it’s fair for that accountability to show up in their assessments, whatever that looks like for you.

With students that are just working slower, though, maybe they’ve shown us that they’ve learned this stuff, so is it fine to be flexible with them and not make them do the same number of projects that all the other kids are doing? One of the things that teachers love to kind of talk about is the, air quotes, “real world.” Are real artists evaluated throughout history by their speed? I mean sure, we like our artists to be prolific. We like them to make a lot of work.

Sure, there are deadlines out there. An artist has to complete work by a certain time if they’re going to have a gallery or a museum show. Oftentimes, that work has been made safe of deadline constraints years in advance. If our students’ work suffers as a result of bowing down to this notion of deadlines and accountability, I think we maybe have an issue that we need to address. Is the trade-off worth it? In the end, I think what we need to do is we need to find a system that works for us and our students, something that is common sense and fair.

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