Cheating

I'm a very trusting person.  I trust people when I first meet them.  I basically trust someone until they give me a reason not to trust them anymore.  So it hurts my feelings when my students cheat on my tests.  I feel betrayed.

I gave a test today.  In one class I walked in to class and placed the tests on my desk, with the key on top of the stack.  I walked out of the room to get water from the drinking fountain.  When I returned, the key was missing.  Before I left the room, I remembered thinking to myself about whether to take the key with me.  I concluded that I should not.  I didn't expect that a student would take it in front of a class full of students, but also I thought it would be a good test of the class' honesty.

When I got back to class and noticed the key missing, I informed the class that the key was missing.  At first they thought I was joking.  Then they realized that I was serious and that I wouldn't begin the test until the key had been recovered.  Over ten minutes passed, with the students talking about it.  One student suggested that whoever took the key would be embarrassed to admit it so I should leave the room so the key could be replaced on my desk without any culpability assigned.  Obviously I didn't want to agree to that.

Anyway, after a while of talking about it, and me thinking about what to do personally, I handed the test out.  I noticed one student who was there at the beginning of class who was not there until the time I handed the tests back.  I know that he took the key because many of his answers on the test were correct without any work written--exactly as they were written on the key.  I was furious.  I wanted to make this student suffer.  I wanted to report him to the administration.  I wanted to fail him.  I wanted to do everything I could to make him pay for cheating.  I was in a rage.

But I kept thinking about it throughout the test time.  I asked myself why I was so upset about it.  I acknowledged that the anger was irrational.  I tried to reason through my emotions.  Who is hurt by this student's actions?  He hurts himself, by losing my respect and my trust.  He hurts the other students in the class, by causing the test to start 15 minutes late and by causing me to mistrust the entire class.  He hurts himself by failing his math class.

I thought about him.  I thought about his future.  What if he makes this a habit?  What if he learns that the best way to obtain something is to steal it?  That dishonesty is useful in life?  What kind of future will he have?  How will he affect society?  He may learn to take advantage of other people.  He may steal.  He may be dishonest in more subtle ways, such as those who are guilty of white-collar crime.

On the other hand, what will happen to him if he learns the value of hard work?  What will happen if he learns that cheating doesn't pay, and that working hard to accomplish the tasks set to him is an effective way to contribute to society?  Is there anything I can do, as a role model and as his instructor, to help him see this decision?  How should I respond in such a situation?  How will my actions affect him, and his choices for the future?  Maybe they will have no effect.  Maybe they will make a world of difference.

But, I think about how I can affect him.  If I simply give him an F for cheating and dismiss any pleas or bargains he tries to make, what will that do?  It may send the message that cheating doesn't work and that he needs to actually work hard to learn the material to do well in the course without cheating.  Or he may resent me.  He may feel like his only option is to cheat and steal.  He may feel like he's being treated unfairly.  He may think that cheating is okay as long as you're not caught, so he just needs to be more careful next time so he doesn't get caught.

What will happen if I give him the opportunity to make up his mistake?  What if I offer him a chance to repent of his action?  Perhaps I could give him a chance to retake the test (modified, of course).  What if I tell him why I'm concerned about his cheating, and why I'm willing to give another chance at this?  Could I motivate him to study harder for the test, and to try again to pass it on his own knowledge rather than by copying off my key?  Certainly, it all depends on him.  But my actions will impact him.

I don't know what is right.  I don't know what is best.  I have had students cheat in the past.  I always hate it.  I hate cheating.  I hate students who cheat.  It makes me angry and upset.  I wish it didn't exist.  But I have an obligation as an instructor.  I am not merely a teacher of math.  I am a mentor to young men who are just starting out their journey in life (yes, I'm fairly young too, but I'm older than my students by roughly a decade).  And it's in my job description.  As an instructor at my college, I am expected to help my students "cultivate the personal attributes of self-confidence, tolerance, morality, ethical behavior, spirituality, humility, a global perspective, and a commitment to social justice."

How can I do that in this case?  What is the best way to help this students cultivate these virtues?  How can I help him understand social justice?  How can I instill in him a desire to be moral and ethical?  Can I show a personal capacity to understand and feel compassion?  Can I offer a second chance?  What is the best way to go about helping this student see which behaviors will benefit society and which behaviors will not?

But will the hand of mercy teach him that he really can get away with cheating--and even earn sympathy points from his teacher for it?  There are reasons to be harsh and reasons to be kind.  This is my moral dilemma.  What should be done?  Perhaps I should invite him to my office and speak with him and then make my decision from there.