What you want to do as a teacher is give students the benefit of the doubt, show kindness, hope they are being trustworthy, and that perhaps they might learn a lesson about human decency along the way, maybe even pass it forward. That’s the scenario we wish for.
Unfortunately, lying to the teacher is all too common, and as the years tick by it seems both students and parents have less of a conscience about it. The old dog ate my homework is mild, comparatively. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be a collective conscience about plagiarism either – a vexatious combination of both stealing and lying.
And then if students really want to dodge consequences, they pull out terms like “stressed” or incite “bullying” against their teachers. All good teachers are happy to receive genuine concerns of this nature, but the waters get very muddy when such terms are used in an unqualified manner. (And it makes it difficult for students who really need to use these terms when those who don’t are abusing them). Sometimes it feels like we’re on opposing teams; even though teachers and students are meant to be on the same team: a learning team.
The heart of the teacher who once upon a time hoped they might change their corner of the world is devastated. I wanted to inspire the next generation and give them hope, but instead I’m dodging lies and shouldering the responsibility of students’ lack of the same.
It’s no surprise some teachers resort to lists of rules and steel their hearts – something they probably swore they’d never do, but feel they have no other option if they want to survive.
Or they leave the profession. They’d rather cut their losses and protect their souls.
So let’s unpack the situation, and maybe find some clarity. First, a couple of points about rules.
Rules articulate the lowest common denominator. They don’t tell you how awesome you can be, they tell you how low you can go. So keeping the rules is reasonable, not exemplary, behaviour. For example, a speed limit tells you how fast you can go; it doesn’t make you a courteous driver. A law about defamation tells you how you can’t speak; it doesn’t make you an oratory inspiration or encouragement.
Rules are only needed when the character of the people is not strong enough. We can teach our middle and high school students this concept. For example, we don’t need a ‘hands up’ rule if everyone is considerate of others and leaves space for open conversation. Or, we only need a ‘don’t touch others’ belongings’ rule if you are destructive or disrespectful of others. The more trust, respect, and care in a community, the less rules are needed.
The take home lesson: rules help, but they don’t change the world. So let’s dig deeper, why do kids (and adults) lie?
Personal experience tells me that it is often because kids want to keep the good opinion of their parents. It’s easier to vilify the teacher than lose the good opinion of a parent because you cheated or stole something. Research would agree with my experiences. When children are infants they may lie to avoid consequences, but as they grow older kids are more prone to lying to retain the good opinion of the people they love, even if it means vilifying others. Complex: kids lie because they want to be loved.
This is further complicated by a decreasing moral conscience about lying in our society. Un-truths seem to be more and more socially acceptable. Lie to get a job. Lie to keep someone happy. Lie to make yourself look good. Lie so that others won’t worry about you. Lie so people won’t go out of their way to help you. Lie for approval.
Meanwhile, bullying and narcissism are on the increase. Is it any wonder?
And, respect and trust are eroded. This is a real problem in light of the knowledge that the building blocks of a functional relationship (in any context) are trust and respect.
When was the last time we taught our kids about trust? How to become trustworthy? And taught them about honesty? About how honesty will build your character even though it may have consequences?
When was the last time we had a lesson about how lies are probably the most understated wickedness in the world because they BREAK trust, and when trust is broken respect is lost.
When was the last time we said, “I’d prefer to know the truth and love you as you are than for you to think you have to be a certain kind of person for me to love you.”
As teachers, we have a steep hill to climb, because often kids come to us with the idea that we will only like them if they fit a certain stereotype. So they lie to us – even in their assignments – to try to secure a better opinion of themselves. Breaks my heart.
So here’s a message from this educator to every student: Your character is more important than your grades or your popularity. Grades have short shelf lives (they’re out of date within a matter of months), popularity ebbs and flows, but character will sustain you. If you give me the chance to work with authentic you – the real you, not a plagiarised or photo-shopped version of you – then we can put a plan together to help you grow. Authentic growth is what you want to take with you into your future, not a glossed up version of yourself that won’t stand the trials of life. If you grow authentically then you will own the successes; they will truly be yours. You’ll be a strong learner and even more than that – a strong person.
 Lee, K. (2013). Little Liars: Development of Verbal Deception in Children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(20), pp 91-96.
Perkins, S.A. & Turiel, E. (2007). To lie or not to lie: To whom and under what circumstances. Child Development, 78(2), pp. 609-621.