Teaching Moments: Confronting Liars

canstockphoto6876189I caught one of my students cheating yesterday. Well, a student in the following class caught her. The girl had written the longest vocabulary word on her test (delicious) on her desk and left it plain as day for the next student who used that desk to see.

Not the most subtle technique. But even though the truth was staring me right in the face, it still took a moment for it to click in my brain. She cheated?! On her vocabulary test?! At first, I was truly perplexed as to why a student would write an English word on their desk.

I guess it doesn’t come naturally for me to expect the worst of people, especially kids. Though I warn them about it every week, I don’t expect kids to cheat. Not my kids.

I certainly don’t expect them to be shameless, bold-faced liars, which this girl turned out to be.

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When I pulled her out into the hallway to confront her today, she looked me straight in the eye and told me she hadn’t cheated. She calmly explained that she had simply written the word on the desk while she was studying before the test.

If I were a slightly less experienced teacher, I might have doubted my intuition and let her get away with it. My cheating policy is that you get a zero on your test. Giving a zero to an innocent student would be rather harsh, so it would be safer to err on the side of giving the benefit of the doubt.

But fortunately, some recent experiences had prepared me for today. Namely, a couple kids recently lied to me about chewing gum in class.

canstockphoto14283970Usually, when I ask, “Are you chewing gum?” in my serious teacher voice, the kids cop to it right away. They spit out the gum, I chastise them, they get a minus, and we all move on.

But recently, in two separate incidents, two kids flat-out denied the gum chewing. I called them to the front of the room and had them open their mouths. They both managed to hide the gum in some crevice I couldn’t find. I saw nothing. But, in both instances I remained convinced the gum was there. So I commanded them to spit it out, hoping that would trick them into doing so.

It didn’t.

They continued to fervently insist there was no gum, and I realized they were stuck too far in their lie to go back. They were ashamed to be proved a liar in front of their entire class. So I took each of them out into the hallway where no one else could see. Then I asked them again. “Are you chewing gum?”

What shocked me was that one girl still denied it, even when it was just me and her.

For a moment, I was thrown. Was I completely off? Had I been falsely accusing her this whole time? But no, my gut still said she was lying.. So I kept on my serious teacher face, lectured her on the badness of lying, handed her a tissue, and told her to throw away her gum. And she did. (I hid my surprise, but up until that moment, I really wasn’t sure if the gum existed.)

canstockphoto16734341So today, bolstered by those experiences, I only wavered for a moment with the cheating student. I questioned my cheating assumption for only a split second before pressing forward, intuition-fueled. I knew this girl could be a smooth talker. I was slightly disturbed by the idea that she was lying so blatantly and unhesitatingly, but if she was, this pattern needed to be shut down.

After her little I-was-studying explanation, I asked rather strongly, “But why on the desk?”

She tilted her head and opened her hands to start another explanation, but I cut her off. “You had paper to write on. Why would you write on the desk?”

No answer.

She never actually verbally confessed. But, as with the gum-chewing girl, I didn’t push for an apology. I let her save face. It was enough in my book that she receive her just punishment.

“If you cheat, you get a zero. You know that, right?” I said, hands planted on my hips. She nodded. “I’m going to change your score to a zero.” Inside, I was in pain, too. She had done better than usual on that test. A zero was going to ruin her average for the month. It was going to make both of us look bad.

But I knew I had to follow through. There was no other way for her to learn.

She didn’t protest my pronouncement, which finally, for me, confirmed her guilt. I let her return to the classroom by herself while I went to retrieve some worksheets from the copy machine. I’m not sure what she told the other students, who must have been curious as to the contents of our private chat, but that normally rambunctious class was dead quiet when I returned and remained so the rest of the period.

As a teacher who gives off a motherly vibe, I often find students coming to me to justify their behavior. They expect me to side with them when they tell me some story about an argument with one of their classmates or some explanation for mischief they got into. But while I love encouraging and comforting my students, I know it’s more important for me to side on the side of right, which might not always be the side they chose.

Those moments of confronting my students with what is right are not always the most comfortable, but they are some of the most important moments I have as a teacher.

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Elizabeth is an American living in South Korea who believes in destiny, miracles, and living life intentionally. She holds to simple faith in a complex world, values the beauty of the everyday, and strives for vulnerability with other imperfect humans. She is always learning, laughing, and finding herself in awe of grace.

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