Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Little Give Gets a Lot

Back last September, when school started, I spent the first few weeks of classes training my students up on Google Documents. I would email a document to each student, have them upload it and share it with me, and from then on I could monitor their progress. Because of the powerful revision history tool, I could also monitor every stage of a document's development. I could tell, in an instant, if a student had copied and pasted something into their work without attribution, and through Google's search tool, I could take a string of text and compare that with all the other documents that had been shared with me. All told I could catch just about every instance of cheating imaginable, and I did.

By taking away their ability to cheat, I thought, I could eliminate cheating and foster a most positive academic climate. So I showed them, in detail, everything I could do, and every way I could catch them. By knowing this up front, I figured, they probably wouldn't bother trying to cheat in the first place.

Afterward, when I found a student had cheated, I called them over, showed them the proof of their academic dishonesty, and issued a reproof about the impropriety of cheating, and the need to do one's own work. A few students, thankfully, had enough of a sense of shame to admit what they had done, and endeavored not to repeat their mistake. But with others, the same conversation led to no few howls of protest, and emphatic claims that no cheating at all had occurred, and even when I pointed out the proof sitting there clearly and unequivocally on the screen, most took the Shaggy approach - they said "it wasn't me." And no matter the proof or the logic, they acted as if by being emphatic enough for long enough, the accusation would just go away.

But I'm not one to be swayed by my students in that manner.

Before long I had garnered a reputation a teacher with an unerring eye for cheating, how had the will to call students out for it, and stick to his guns. I noted down every instance of cheating, and if students persisted in refusing to admit what all and sundry could see as plain as day, I'd issue an incomplete, mark an x in a little box, and cease all discussion on the matter.

Back in Canada, I would have considered the matter closed, the battle won. I would have informed the students that for the next and each subsequent assignment, I would expect no less than honest effort. While I am sure some might have complained, I would know that regardless of whatever pressure a parent could bring to bear on the administration, I was protected. I could call on my union rep, quote the appropriate academic guidelines, and leave the matter at that. From a letter of the law standpoint, I would have been on the side of angels. But I don't live in Canada, I live here.

Knowing they could be caught dead to rights, many of my students started waging a misinformation campaign. To other students, other teachers, the admin, and the principal, they made claims, let their grievances be known, and came up with all manner of excuses as to why it was all so unfair. They focused on undermining the use of Google Documents. What if they did not have internet access at home? (Every student making this claim later recanted, admitting they did, indeed, have internet access at home). Why doesn't the teacher just give a paper out? (To prevent rampant copying). Why dd I insist on them calling me "sir?" (Because saying "teacher, teacher" is poor English, and "sir" is a universally accepted, respectful mode of address). On, and on it went. Endless meetings, conferences, you name it. Students would bring in parents with the most wild eyed claims (He makes us search for our homework on Google!), and while in each case the misinformation was cleared up, and the parents left with a good mind to introduce their son to the back of a hand, the damage had been done.

Complaints. There had been complaints. There had been a torrent of seemingly endless complaints. If my ears were deaf to them, my students figured that others might be more receptive. That the complaints had no merit was not the issue. That there were complaints, was. Why did I have to rock the boat? Why did I have to be so strict? Why couldn't I be a little more flexible?

Not one to stand against the tide in a foreign country where my rights are limited and the possibility of being packed on to a plane and sent home is a possibility, I decided to drop the matter. I love that Google system, but not enough that I'd put myself in the path of a possible pink slip for it. So when the New Year dawned, I was given entirely new classes. A fresh start, I was told. Sometimes, I was also told, some people just aren't a good fit in one place. Change is good.

I accepted my new situation, but for most of the rest of the year I felt bitterness, and no little amount of betrayal. The way I saw it, I had been looking out for my students, enforcing proper academic standards, and properly preparing them for entrance into a tertiary program the following year. I saw my removal from one set of classes and placement in another set as a gross error that not only undercut my authority and credibility, but which would only serve to reinforce exactly the wrong lesson for those students whose long and bitter campaign had ended in triumph. While railing secretly over what I saw as an injustice, I also came to feel a little depressed, unsure of myself and my ability as a teacher.

Then things began to change. Ever flexible, I acquiesced to the imperative I had been issued. Change! Change something. Do something. I was told to think long and hard and to find somethng that worked, with the implication that if I was called back, the subsequent discussion would be much briefer.

So I did as asked. I changed. I thought long and hard, and I used those hard fought battles and the experience that came with them, and adjusted my entire system. I lightly introduced the Google Docs system to those willing, and to the rest I would email documents as Word files that could be completed on a computer, and I even printed out hard copies for those who wanted to do them by hand. Keeping tabs on cheating was a little harder, but still doable, and that added flexibility seemed to be appreciated by my students.

I found that by storing every submitted assignment away on Outlook, I could still detect cheating, and call students out on what they had done. But the evidence was not quite as unequivocal, and soon some of my students found some wiggle room. Simultaneous submissions, renaming files, and more. But being the geek that I am (apprentice level, really, as I have a long ways to go to hit uber-geek status), I still had a few tricks up my sleeve. One good one was being able to check out the file properties, and see who last saved the file, or who had created it. The students saw my actions as fair play. I was doing my job, but wasn't being a hard ass about it. They knew I wasn't trying to submit them to the panopticon, but they knew I was paying attention.

With the new classes there were no complaints. Cooperation increased. Participation increased, and our little system purred beautifully. My new students knew I was as hawk-eyed as my reputation suggested, as time and again I'd softly call one over and have a brief discussion about the need to redo an assignment. But by omitting any sense of censure or moral indignation from my tone, almost every time I called a student over, I found my students willing to admit what they had done, and willing to do their work for real.

I could still catch them, but I wasn't totalitarian about it. And when I did catch them, instead of trying to get them to feel shame over an immoral act, I looked on their indiscretion as I would a traffic ticket. No judgment, just a simple statement of fact and a clearly defined consequence.

As the school year winds down and summer approaches, and I look back on this year, I find myself feeling humbled, truly and deeply humbled. In September I had thought that by demonstrating to students that not only could they not cheat, but that it was impossible to do so, they wouldn't try. Little had I known then, but can see so clearly now, I had sown the seeds for confrontation through my own actions. From the student's perspective, what I'd said was that I expected they would try to cheat, which was tantamount to basically saying that they were all cheaters, and that my opinion of them was about as high chocolate thins wafer.

I'd done to them what music and movie companies have been doing to countless media consumers the world over, and I reaped the same reward. By making it impossible to cheat, by removing my students' free will in the matter, conflict became inevitable. It's not a matter of right or wrong, but of human nature, and human dignity. Being honest with myself, I could not say that I would have reacted differently had I been in their position.

Don't get me wrong. Cheating is something teachers have to strive to stamp out, but I learned that the key to the process is the striving itself. You cannot make the system perfect or infallible. You have to allow for imperfections, for the possibility of wrongdoing. In order to foster moral behavior, you cannot simply prohibit immoral behavior or make it impossible. You have to offer morality as a choice, one not coerced or forced, but just a choice laying on the table.

The old students I had had, as I learned, had not turned a new corner with a new teacher. They'd won their battle, and felt all the bolder for it. I felt sad for the students who had been honest, had worked hard, had applied themselves, and who found themselves in a less than ideal learning environment. But I didn't dwell on it. It's a challenge many students the world over have faced, and is by no means unique to this part of the world (Which is why I believe that Season 4 of The Wire should be required viewing for every teacher). It all could have been avoided, as they say, had I known then what I know now. But teaching, just like any other job, is something you learn to become better at through experience. There will inevitably be failures, but the key is to recognize those failure and leverage them into, if not success, then something better.

Right here, right now, I feel the truth of that old adage, that old cliche. When God closes a door, he opens a window. Even though my actions may have been right, and my intentions also, how I went about it had much to be desired. A younger me, a less family-ed up, worried-sick-about-not-being-able-to-support-them me might have made more noise, stood my ground, and fought for my principles.

That I hadn't, perhaps, is a sign that I'd grown up. As I look at my wife, and my children, all safely, peacefully asleep, I am so very thankful that I did.

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