02 December 2013

Pandora's Box

 I have wanted to talk about this for a while, but have been afraid to open the Pandora's Box. Cheating is one of those things that teachers don't want to talk about--you must be a bad teacher if someone cheats in your class.  And if you do talk about it, a monstrous administrative machine rolls into action full of consequences (mostly for the teacher), extra work and infamy. I am never sure that a young person has gained anything from that experience. These days, you are likely to have the parents question your content knowledge and teaching skills if you mention the word about their child--it is a slur on their character that cannot be erased. And the embedding of the internet into every school activity has increased the possibility that someone plagiarizes unwittingly a hundredfold. It's complicated. 

    I know many who ignore it. I have heard myself saying, "I pay attention to the kids who are doing what they are supposed to. I will not waste my time on those who cheat." It is a way to get through the day, honestly. You know that certain types of students will always take the short cut. I know I do not "catch" a great percentage of them.  If I kept track of every phone in a pocket or iPad screen just to make sure everyone was honest, I would have lost my mind years ago. And no one (including me) would ever learn anything. I would be a prison guard if that was what I did with my time. But what teacher has not spent 30 minutes at least once finding the webpage that the kid plagiarized? You KNOW he cheated because he is not good enough at it to leave no trace, but honestly, some of them do not care that I could prove it. This is just the way the game is played, in their minds. Maybe they are right. But I still believe that part of my job is to help my students find their path to integrity, and I am old enough to be proud I never cheated. So I can be a model, at least.
   So what to do? I used an honor code*  at my last school that students wrote and signed at the end of every major piece of work we did in class. I told them that if they could not in good conscience sign it, then they needed to come and talk about that with me.  I do not believe that the honor code stopped cheaters, but it puts everyone on notice that I care what they do. And if I witnessed an incident that is clear cut enough to mention, then I started by reviewing my own actions—did I set them up for bad decision making? The answer is pretty much always NO. So we have to talk. And the conversation starts like this:
"You are practicing at being solid human beings. You make mistakes, I make mistakes.  So what do we do now? What do you think our path forward should be?"
I do not excuse them—everyone needs to reminded that right and wrong are always playing in the backchannel of life. But how to recover? Official handling of cheating often leaves that out.  It is usually about punishment. So the conversation continues:
"Come tell me. We will work out a path together." 
And we do. Sometimes it costs them a grade or call to a parent, but then we role play how to manage a 0 or survive the talk with a parent. Sometimes the solution is just between us. Sometimes I end up involving official channels. It depends on the student, what they need to get past it. This might be the most important interaction I ever have with that young person. I want to help them, but I also need to protect our class family life. They need to see how to build personal integrity. It is uphill all the way in this culture--high school, the 21st century, America--whichever culture you wish to consider. I know that this lesson is the one that needs to stick. It is more important than The Aeneid or Shakespeare, for sure. And I still want to find hope in the bottom of this Pandora's Box...

*I promise on my honor as a XXXXX student that I have neither given nor received help on this work.   
Signature, Date

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