What do I teach, again?

Well, this much I know for sure: the world of education is a wonderous place. And by wonderous, I mean that I’m beginning to realize there will never be a point when I cease to wonder about situations that seem so basic as to be trite, but still open up broad and fascinating pedagogical questions for me, even 8 years into my teaching career.

This week, a situation arose in which some students were cheating on a test. Simple, right? At this point, I’ve been through the scenario so many times that my response should be pre-programmed and my actions devoid of thought. But it wasn’t so simple…

To begin, all three students are known amongst our small community for being engaged students who are well-liked by the faculty and students alike. They often go above-and-beyond with extra projects, attempting to breathe even more life into our community by encouraging students to join extra-curricular groups like Student Government and the Athletic Teams, or by creating aquaponics systems inside classrooms (with teacher approval and support) that spark curiosity amongst our entire community. However, they are also all good at bending rules to their will often; in some cases, it sparks positive changes or innovations in our community that wouldn’t have been possible without somebody to ‘shake things up.’ In other cases, though, it serves to more deeply entrench their senses of entitlement.

Now, this is the part of my narrative where I am not holding back – just calling it as I see it. The truth of the matter is that modern students, especially those deriving from middle-class families, are coming of age in a completely different way than many of those of us over 30. On top of the Customer-Servicing World, the changing values of The Three Adults, the lack of opportunities for boredom, many of these students also don’t have many ‘carrots’ to chase after. I mean to say that they still get to drive the expensive cars that their parents gave them even if they get in trouble (or crash it… then the parents just replace it), they still get to go home and choose to play video games before completing homework if they’d like, and they still roll into school in the morning with Starbucks lattes in hand and eat a Chipotle burrito with chips, guacamole, and a large drink for lunch. Simply put, they are used to getting what they want in the moment they want it, or at least soon after.

Our boys in question are certainly in this situation. While in the ‘hot seats’ after being brought into the office when the cheating was discovered, our Principal asked the boys what they thought the response would be at home from this situation. They answered that their parents ‘would have a conversation with them.’
“A conversation? I meant what are the punishments that you will receive?”
They didn’t seem to understand – the conversation was the punishment. When asked if their car would be taken away, if they would be grounded, if they would no longer be allowed to go skiing every weekend at the expensive resorts they frequent, there was shock that such things would even be suggested. Our Principle related to them that he didn’t think they understood the severity of such an infraction – one of his acquaintances was kicked out of college on the day he was caught cheating on an exam with no refund on tuition or further discussion.

The issue here brings up two interesting pedagogical questions for me as an educator. The first is “Does the path to mastery of necessary academic skills and creation of intrinsic motivation benefit from or require the ‘Carrots and Sticks’ approach until the pupil has reached true adulthood?” In other words, is Skinner’s ‘Operant Conditioning’ model still useful as one of many decision-making heuristics for parents and educators until the student reaches full adulthood?

The second question revolves around the fact that we know that positive relationships with an adult – whether a parent, teacher, or other mentor – improve student performance and development. This fact can contrast the ‘Carrots and Sticks’ model because if the student-teacher relationship is based completely in rewards and punishments that are objective and decided upon in an environment devoid of emotion or personal connection, students will not have positive relationships with us. Yet, too far down this path and do we potentially have students who grow up to simply be entitled, lack academic skills, and don’t enjoy learning anyways.

You may be able to predict that my personal opinions as to the answers is that our process must lie somewhere in between these two methods, but that the key lies in creating individual parents and educators developing skill with their mental heuristics that determine the decision-making process.

Let’s start with the first question, which in my mental schema really stems from the methods of compulsory schooling that those of us in our 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, or even 60’s experienced*. We had a comparatively low amount of choice involved in our education and a high amount of structure. I know this is a gross generalization, but it’s true, right? How many of us still have nightmares (even today!) about showing up late to a class or an after-school sports practice? We sort of figured out ‘how to play the game’ efficiently by learning what actions had negative (unfavorable) consequences and what actions had the opposite. Thus, we did what we were told for the most part, got rewards and punishments that influenced the frequency with which we would make similar future decisions, and turned out ‘fine,’ right? But we also all understand that these educational norms certainly had a vast amount of territory that could be improved upon in terms of maintaining a love-of-learning lasting into adulthood and creating intrinsic motivation.

My father, now in his 60’s, had a reason to excel in school – he wanted to ‘make it.’ He wanted to transcend the trappings of the lower-middle class way of life, to leave the town he was born in to start a life in a place of his choosing, and to never have to spend so much time and energy worrying about money. That gave him reason and purpose enough to stick with the structure and create goals that schooling would allow him to achieve. My students that I caught cheating on the test… well, they already have a pretty awesome life! Why should they want to invest in a highly structured education like he did**? Instead, we need to spend more time as educators thinking about how to ‘hook’ them, which brings us further toward question #2. The upside to ‘hooking’ them is that we now can have a shot at producing a lifelong love-of-learning and intrinsic motivation. However, another consideration open to debate is that the ‘Carrots-and-Sticks’ model that I am using to grossly generalize the educational style of my father’s generation is very clear – it’s cut and dry for educators. The ‘new’ educational style, on the other hand, requires that we consider a LOT more variables and make subjective, individualized decisions based on only those variables that we are able to ‘place a finger on,’ so to speak, at the time we make them.

So in the case of my cheating students, what am I to do? The pre-programmed response that I alluded to earlier should have really been the Carrot/Stick Model – the students receive a punishment that is harsh enough that it dissuades them from completing the same action again in the future (Operant Conditioning), and we move on. In the long-term, we are hoping that this ultimately becomes a component of their own character values, perhaps without them consciously choosing it. But that’s not the modern world of education, right? Instead, what happens is that these students get mad at you, resent you, and ‘learn’ that they have been treated unfairly, not that they have made a mistake. Why? Well, out of the 20 times they did the same thing, they only received the ‘punishment’ for it once. Thus, the thing they learn is that punishments don’t ‘just happen’ – instead, they are subjectively given out by the person who catches you in the moment, if they catch you. If this is the case, and punishments can vary or cease to exist at all depending on the ‘feeling’ of the person who you are interacting with, then the smartest thing for the student to do is to argue their side to lower the punishments. One technique for argument is to leverage the weight of relationships! BA-DA-BING! To further compound things, if a shallow depth of argument is effective in lowering punishments with the student’s parents, then of course extreme frustration is a natural result of a greater depth of argument being needed to reduce the punishment!

Then, of course, there is the middle ground that we are all striving for – to give them the punishment, but help the student to understand why they are receiving it and to take personal ownership of responsibility. We all know, though, that this ‘explanation of why’ takes lots of time, energy, and still doesn’t always ‘work’ the way we desire. One component of the solution is simply time – it takes repetition and time to get the results we want and ultimately build a culture that does the work of reinforcing these character traits for us. But the other side of things that intrigues me is continuing to develop heuristics that help us make decisions in those critical moments.

Now, I will tell you how I ultimately decided to respond in this particular instance, but before doing so let me say that in the development of these educational heuristics, no flow chart or rubric could ever guide us to the perfect answer or grade our response’s effectiveness. That’s not to say we can’t create tools that help us evaluate the situation! It’s just to say that automation and standardization won’t save us from this debacle of the utmost importance (developing our kids into great human beings) – only people who have actually thought about their approaches can make these decisions.

… And all of these thoughts running through my head in the hour after this incident was discovered (the boys are now calling it ‘The Event’) finally brought me to the question “What do I teach, anyways? Math, or life? And perhaps more importantly, where are the limits of my responsibilities?” I didn’t know what to do in the moment in terms of these questions, and that right there was my strategy moving forward… to be transparent with these boys as to my thoughts.

What follows is my best reconstruction of the conversation with them. In real life, there were a lot more sentences beginning with ‘um’ and ‘like’ than I care to admit here, and a generally less elegant presentation.

BOYS: The principal called our parents, gave us zeros on that test, and took us out of our Lab Assistant / Aquaponics Elective [They created this elective and are the only three students in it… it’s sort of a great privilege].

ME: And?

BOYS: It seems unfair.

ME: [Noncommittal shrug]

BOYS: Do you think it’s fair?

ME: I didn’t say that…

BOYS: What punishment would you give us that you thought was fair?

ME: I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this – I mean what’s actually going through my mind right now – but I think I will anyway. I am a math teacher, right? That’s it. I’m not the principal, I’m not the final word in either punishments or in teaching character – I’m just supposed to make sure you are learning math. But as much as I want every student here to leave this place with an ability to take control of their own financial lives through quantitative analysis [I rant about this a lot and teach a Financial Literacy course that is heavily focused on math and Excel as tools for making financial decisions], I want even more than that for students to also leave this place NOT being that person who sees a giant line of cars at the exit they want to take on the highway and drives to the front of the line and then cuts in from the left lane in the last meter, causing even more traffic in the main lanes behind them. You know what I mean?

BOYS: [nods]

ME: I think at this point, it probably sounds like I am making an analogy with the fact that you cheated, and the fact that it’s wrong and dangerous to cheat. But I’m not. Honestly, as much as I am thinking about the cheating, I am also thinking about all of your ability to ‘bargain’ down punishments. You are all really good at doing this, and you do it often.

ONE OF THE BOYS: I consider that a good thing. It’s a useful skill to be able to make bargains!

ME: Yes, I absolutely agree. Except when there are repercussions that may go completely unnoticed. When you continue to bargain with people close to you (and in positions of authority), it works for a while, right? But eventually, those people hold you accountable to expectations and cease to deal with the bargaining trick. When this happens, it annoys you, or frustrates you, or makes you angry with those people, right? It drives a wedge into the relationship you have with those people, and you become mad at them and often don’t even recognize your own impact or influence on that relationship. Like two weeks ago when I called you out and made you miss game day for going by your own watch’s time on our Crew’s thirty minute run, stopping right at 30:00 when my watch had been started 30 seconds after. And you didn’t talk to me or have the same relationship with me for the next week and a half! I’m not saying that it didn’t hurt me, but I’m your math teacher… who did it hurt more?

BOY: Me…

ME: Because then you didn’t ask for the help you needed or try as hard in math, and then next week you had to cheat on your test. I think I am just at the point where I have seen too many people in our country go through break-ups – including people who are my age and married and get divorced – who never even realize that they are responsible for the faults in the relationships too! And that to me is just as sad as people who cheat in life or cut traffic lines.
I guess that’s a long way of me saying that I’m honestly not really that interested in even figuring out what punishment I would give you – I think it’s important that you take responsibility for this punishment, that you own it and learn from it. Because to me, it’s about more than academic integrity. It’s about creating a life for yourself that you are completely proud of and happy with, and that’s a lot more complex topic than this specific instance, but this specific instance can at least teach us something about how to get there.

I have no idea if my response was correct, or if I was paying attention to the right set of variables at the time that I made the decision. But I will identify a few things I did that I think were at least noteworthy. I was honest and raw with them, and because of it I was doing the opposite of ‘teacher bullshitting.’ I showed them I was human, that I don’t have all the answers and can’t even think of all the questions, but that I am certainly asking the questions in a way that is hopefully reducing my biases and increasing my search toward truth and contentment. I think it not only mended, but strengthened my relationships with them while at the same time justifying the punishments to them in a way that I hope will help them to grow and change. I suppose only time will tell if my choice was a good one.

*I am in my thirties, and thus consider myself to be right at the inflection point of these changing styles. I still had a lot of structure and did a lot of rule-following, but I also experienced a good amount of choice and autonomy.
** I was also right in between my father’s goals and the goals of my students – I had a pretty good life and wasn’t just trying to not have to worry about money all the time, but yet I still wanted to find more in my life as well (specifically in terms of finding meaning).

In the week since this incident occurred, the student I was interacting with in the final portions of the conversation asked if I wanted to go skiing with him. We met that weekend at A-Basin and ripped some laps on Pali, Zuma Cornice, and in the Beavers. It was great. The next Monday, after an entire year of battles refusing to lock his phone away in a Yond’r Bag, my friend and colleague Eric told me that he came in and immediately locked his phone away for the day. This continued all week. Eric’s take was that positive relationships (we are our authentic selves, actually LIKE our students, but also hold high expectations and measures of accountability) work. Given my extreme ‘consciousness,’ let’s call it, about technologies, it seems that his analysis is a likely explanation. But who knows?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s