What Happened When My High School Students Cheated

I have been teaching for 17 years, and thus have seen my fair share of cheating. Most of it is obvious; Students believe they have perfected the stretching neck crane (a new yoga move perhaps?) to see the paper of a peer. They have cheat sheets that (with great subtlety) they place underneath the quiz I have handed out. They write tiny notes on their hands or arms, or surreptitiously slide their phones out of their pockets to look at notes they have typed to themselves, or texts from friends with answers. A lot of this, I am able to catch. The consequence is quick and severe, and it is frustrating on all sides. I take no joy in this moment, or the moments that inevitably follow, when there are tears, or denials, from both parents and students.

High school students cheated on a test.

I have read the reports, which claim that “cheating is widespread if not endemic” and that seven in 10 [teens] say at least some kids in their school cheat on tests. Six in 10 have friends who’ve cheated. About one in three say they themselves have cheated, rising to 43 percent of older teens. And most say cheaters don’t get caught”. Yet, for some reason, I believed that because of the relationships I have forged with my students, it was not so widespread in my classroom.

A few weeks ago, I was proven incorrect on a large-scale, and I find myself not so much saddened by it, but frustrated and angered. It has always been the case that all students, no matter the teacher, take the same midterm for the same class, in my school. So all students in Standard Eleventh Grade English take the same exam, and the same is true for honors and AP classes. Because of the schedule this year, my kids took the exam first, and someone leaked the questions to the other classes in their grade.

[More on Why Cheating Hurts Students here.]

When we realized the issue, we each commented on it in our classes, gesturing vaguely to the idea that this had happened, and applying our best guilt trips to the entire class. It was clear from their nodding heads that no one was surprised. It was clear from their expressions that they all knew about it. No one came forward. Days passed, and parents called, and still no one came forward. Without information about who cheated, or how, there was little we could do. They got away with it.

Parents were furious. We were furious. But worse than that, for me, was the problem that because I don’t know who the culprit was, I find myself now suspicious of all. And that is not fair. I look at innocent (maybe?) kids, as though they are guilty. And I hate it, but in a way, they are all culpable. While I don’t blame them for lacking the bravery or wherewithal to talk to one of us (I honestly don’t know what I would have done in their place, at their age), without a target for my anger, I inadvertently target them all. It is lucky for them that I find it impossible to hold a grudge.

[How to One Teacher Thinks Parents Can Help Their High School Kids here.]

In the last few days, I have felt the emotions slipping away, as the past always does for me, ever so silently. But I can’t speak for the other teachers, all dealing with the same issue. All of their students are now suspect. And with this suspicion, comes a slew of other emotions.

And here, I need to remind you that teachers are human beings, susceptible to the full range of emotions, and to acting on those emotions.  Because once I realize that a student in my class has willingly cheated, and has not owned up to the act, and has not come to me to apologize for his/her lack of respect, or loss of ethics, or concession to anxiety, I notice that our relationship changes in the most subtle of ways. I find myself closing myself off to these students.  More often than not, these are the students who need my help more than the others.  They have struggled in my class all year.  Yet, I can feel my attention pulled to other students.  I can feel my chilliness when they approach me.   

So, the message to the student is this (do with it what you will): There are always consequences.  You did not get caught, but that does not mean you got away with it.  You got the better grade, but lost my trust. Will I be as empathetic when you are late with your next assignment?  Will I agree to write your letter of recommendation for college when I already have a stack to write?  Am I likely to seek you out to make sure you understand what you missed in class?  The choices you make for one grade have grave effects on the subtle choices your teacher has to make every day.  Was it worth it?


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About Emily Genser

Emily Genser is a veteran high school teacher in West Hartford, CT and a mother of two. She spends her days with teens helping them navigate their lives while holding on to their laughter and hearts. She is exhausted, but smiling through the chaos.

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