A first year teacher on twitter asked me how to deal with cheaters. My immediately response was: find out your school policies and procedures. Dealing with cheating is emotionally fraught, for the students, for parents, for the teacher, and for administrators. My school has something called the Student-Faculty Judiciary Committee, which I serve on, which provides a way for students to reflect on their actions, as well as distances the teacher from the situation. More than anything, you need to know what others in your school do, because it can all backfire on you if dealt with improperly.
So I tweeted that school culture and policies — and knowing you have support in what decisions you make — are important. And then I typed up my advice, if a teacher has carte blanche and no SFJC or disciplinary board.
Knowing nothing about your school policies and culture, and assuming you have the support of your administrators to deal with it in your own way, and assuming you’re pretty darn sure your two students cheated, here’s what I would do.
First approach the students individually, and to each, say you noticed something odd about their latest exam, and if they have anything they want to tell you, to let you know by the end of the day.
If one (or both) do come to you and admit to cheating, skip to the paragraph beginning “If they admit to cheating…”
Most likely neither will come see you, so the next day sit them down individually, state the facts, and let them talk. I wouldn’t even mention the other student’s name in that meeting – and if you pull out the other exam, be sure to cover the name up. This meeting is about the kid in front of you. Not the other kid. And be sure to make sure the student knows that.
Start off by admitting you don’t know the whole situation, but it looks too suspicious to let it go, and that you wanted to have a conversation about it. Lay out the facts. Keep pressing the student on the improbability/impossibility of the similarities being a coincidence, and how you really need them to help you see their side. Don’t get attacking, don’t get put on the defensive, don’t accuse, just keep to the facts. You aren’t putting them on trial. You are their teacher, and you want to keep that relationship first and foremost. So stay cool and firm. And if it gets too emotional, take a 5 minute break and come back.
If they admit to cheating in that meeting, GREAT! Then have a conversation about what was going on, have them reflect on why they cheated (pressures, panic, etc.) and ask them about things they can do to prevent it from happening in the future. Then ask them what YOU can do to help them to prevent it from happening in the future. THEN talk about your consequence (0 for exam? 50% for exam? whatever). I’d give the consequence last, and it is NOT up for negotiation. Finally thank them for their honesty, and remind them that above all else, you’re there for them. That you care, and that you’re their teacher.
If they don’t admit anything in that meeting, and after hearing what both students had to say you are still convinced that it was cheating, then tell the students you are still skeptical and their explanations, but you are going to sleep on it and get back to them.
The next day I would talk to them again (individually, as before) and say that you are sorry about the situation, but as a teacher, you can’t just sit on it. Then tell the student that they are going to get a 0 (or 50%, or whatever your consequence is) for the exam. Remember, sometimes as a first year teacher, students feel can convince you that everything is up to negotiation. That’s not true, and don’t let them negotiate with you. However, you need to emphasize that even though the situation isn’t ideal, YOU ARE THEIR TEACHER and YOU ARE ALWAYS THERE FOR THEM. Say you know things will probably feel very awkward for them, and they might really be angry at you or the situation for a while, but they need to get past that quickly because you are there, always, to help them succeed. And you don’t want anything preventing them from coming to you for extra help or support, or to feel like they can’t speak up in class.
Cheating is hard for me. I have gone through a cheating situation (sometimes more than one) each year. And I get really emotional, angry, frustrated, and sad. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know. But what gets me through it is even though I feel like the student violated my trust (which he or she did), they did not cheat to violate my trust. It is not personal, though it feels personal. It usually arises out of panic and pressure. And that’s the opening where I find a place to start a conversation with a student.
 To me, anyway, it is really important that the student-teacher relationship doesn’t get totally broken as a result of a cheating incident. Teachers have to be the adult in these situations and recognize that our students are just kids. It may seem like a huge breach of trust to us, but we still have a responsibility to them.
Sam, This is really thoughtful and I’m glad to read it. It reminds me of a scene in the documentary “The Hobart Shakespeareans”, about teacher Rafe Esquith. Have you seen it? There is a quick little scene in there of him handling a cheating situation that I thought was really inspiring because he, in his own classroom culture, had a very specific, cut-and-dry way of dealing with cheating. He was working with a completely different age group (5th/6th graders) from the group you work with, and I think he actually saw the cheating occur, but his way of dealing with that was to take the two kids aside and say, “I saw what happened, and it’s not acceptable, but I am still here for you as your teacher.” Very brisk and matter of fact.
Your post also reminds me of a part of NurtureShock I was re-reading yesterday: “Kids turn to cheating because they haven’t developed a strategy for handling failure. The problem is compounded when a parent ignores a child’s failures and insists he’ll do better next time. Michigan scholar Jennifer Crocker studies this exact scenario and explains that the child may come to believe that failure is something so terrible, the family can’t acknowledge its existence. A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them.” (p22)
From everything I know about you from your blog, it sounds like in your classroom you are helping your kids develop strategies for handling failure and learning from their mistakes. But maybe in our overall culture it is hard to counteract what seems to be a collective fixation with avoiding “failure” at all costs.
Anyway–your blog rocks!