Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Monday, October 25, 2010

When Enough is Enough: Cracking Down on Academic Dishonesty

Now that the first marking period of the new school year is almost over, I have already witnessed several incidences of academic dishonesty (ie: cheating) from many students across subject areas. While this trend certainly does not surprise me, the fact that many of these students are otherwise good kids and high-achieving breaks my heart. It's as if the only way they think they can succeed and get "As" is by cheating and taking the best shortcut available, rather than relying on their own hard work and intelligence.

When, then, is enough enough? How much more cheating and plagiarism are we going to tolerate from students whom we are preparing for life and work in the real world? What life lessons are we teaching them if they realize they can get by and earn their highly-coveted As (and eventual admission into top colleges) through copying others' work, cheating, and handing in work that is really not their own?

In the September 1st edition of Education Week, high school teacher Christopher L. Doyle wrote a thought-provoking and honest commentary entitled "All my favorite students cheat." Doyle argues that students are protecting themselves from widespread insecurity in a declining America, while other prominent education commentators and authors, such as Jay Mathews (one of my personal favorites!), stresses the larger problem is that teachers love and trust their students so much that they have become easy targets for cheating to occur in the daily classroom. While I can appreciate both viewpoints, I'd argue that kids are looking for the easy way out and responding to a society that places a tremendous amount of pressure on them beginning at an early age. You want to get into Harvard, Stanley? Good; then you better outperform and accomplish more than all of your classmates, from earning top grades to being the best athlete, musician, volunteer, and leader in your community. And you better start in kindergarten...or else!

From day one of the school year, my colleagues and I stress the importance of students taking pride in their own work and turning in only what is theirs. We have the whole academic dishonesty discussion, ask students to display academic integrity, and discuss the severe consequences of what will happen if they decide to cheat, but still, cheating inevitably happens, across subjects, grade levels, and even racial and cultural lines. What gives? 

Yes, even "great" kids cheat. We'd like to think we can trust students to do their own work and not take the easy way out, but this is just not realistic. So how can we, as teachers, create an "anti-cheating" classroom environment and culture? This is no easy path. In fact, a Washington, DC high school teacher was recently involuntarily transferred to another school due, in large part, to his use of anti-cheating devices. For example, he would make the text of his tests too small to be read from the next desk. The principal's response? This teacher was "creating an expectation that students will cheat" and ought to have more faith in his students' character. Bye-bye to him. Wow. 

The biggest proactive action schools can choose to stop student cheating in its tracks is to administer consistent, severe, and no-nonsense consequences for students caught cheating. My eighth grade team of teachers has a consistent no-tolerance policy with cheating. If a student is caught cheating or suspected of it, we will issue the student(s) involved a zero on the assignment, call home, and put a citation for academic dishonesty in the student's file. I pride myself on being vigilant and hyper-observant of students' work during tests, constantly circling the classroom and making multiple editions of reading and vocabulary tests (Yes, this is extremely time consuming). The high school our students feed into is even harsher, as it should be. 

Still, cheating persists, but we cannot back down. Doing so will only send the message to students that it is OK to cheat and even better to get away with it. This dishonesty and lack of integrity is then bound to follow them into college and the real world. Do we want our next generation to have a careless attitude of sloth, dishonesty, and complacence toward the quality or integrity of their work and careers? Do we want them to learn to copy and paste information from websites and elsewhere for their essay and have no problem claiming it as their own work? I certainly hope not. So, let's do everyone a favor by having a no-tolerance cheating policy and consistently following through with harsh consequences, regardless of who the student involved in it is.

I also want to include Mathews's aforementioned column, "A crackdown on cheating would benefit everyone." He makes some valid and surprising discoveries.

A crackdown on cheating would benefit all
By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Sept. 1 edition of Education Week had a provocative commentary, "All my favorite students cheat," by high school teacher Christopher L. Doyle. He and I agree that cheating is rife, but we don't agree on what causes that. He thinks students are protecting themselves against widespread insecurity in a declining America. I think the larger problem is that teachers so love and trust their students that the teachers become easy marks.

America used to be tough on cheaters. Before World War II, miscreants could be suspended, expelled or caned. Schools went soft in the 1960s, and although we have little data, cheating probably increased. In a 1995 survey by "Who's Who Among American High School Students," 76 percent of high-schoolers with at least B averages said they had cheated at least once. In suburban, upper-middle-class, high-achieving schools, such as the place Doyle still teaches or many Washington area schools, cheating is still common.

Some students want their schools to do something about it. In the mid-1990s, I served on a citizen-teacher-student governance committee at Scarsdale High School in Westchester County, N.Y. When our chairman asked whether anyone had any personal complaints about the school, our two student members raised a topic we had never addressed: cheating. Non-cheating students, they said, felt abused by lax enforcement. They blamed teachers for not proctoring their own exams. Some teachers, they said, left the room for the hour to sip coffee in the teachers lounge.

These were not state tests or the SAT, which require proctoring, but the regular course exams that would determine students' report card grades. The Scarsdale assistant principal told me many teachers assumed their students would never cheat because they were such great kids.

Such deep belief in the inner goodness of American teens is not easily challenged. Erich Martel, a history teacher at Wilson High School in the District, was recently involuntarily transferred to another school in part because he used anti-cheating devices such as printing tests with fonts too small to be read from the next desk. His principal complained he was "creating an expectation that students will cheat" and ought to have more faith in the character of his pupils.

Schools here and throughout the country have struggled for years with the issue but made little progress. Attitudes differ on what constitutes cheating. In one survey of students at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., 97 percent said looking at another student's exam was wrong. Only 46 percent, however, had the same view about asking someone in an earlier class what was on the test. Teachers I know encourage team projects, so their students ask why they can't share their homework results. Multiple-choice tests are easier to cheat on, but they take less time to grade than essay exams. Essays are more difficult to copy.

Some surveys suggest pressure to get admitted to a favorite college can cause cheating, but so can adolescent sloth. One teacher at a New York school I visited said how proud she was that her students never took those illegal shortcuts. Hearing that, a student journalist quickly found two good students who had cheated on each of the teacher's last three exams. The reporter asked them why. "It was just easier," one said.

Despite the cheating, learning continues. Students have to know something to do well on heavily proctored exams, such as the SAT or Advanced Placement tests. Perhaps if we took cheating more seriously on exams that affect high school grades, our students would not cheat and would have more respect for us. 

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