Posted by: chrisdavis | October 30, 2010

Who’s Been Cheating?

My cell phone rang at 9:00 AM. It was the high school office asking if I could come in right away. It was unusual for me to be called in to substitute after school had already begun. The office said the History teacher had to leave due to an emergency and it would really help if I was available. Since I had not been called earlier, I was making other plans for the day, but the tone of urgency changed my mind and I agreed to come in. The school said they knew I would be a little late for the beginning of second period but these were honors students and they would be OK until I got there.

I quickly dressed back into my slacks, shirt, and Pooh Bear tie and drove to the school.

I arrived breathless after running up the stairs to the tenth grade History classroom.

I had been with these students before. They were well behaved and lots of fun. They must have come from good homes because they all had relatively high self-esteem and didn’t seem to have a lot of personal drama going on in their lives like so many of the other students I substituted for.

When I entered the room, I saw that half the students were gathered around one of the girls. She was holding a tiny strip of paper in her hand and was reading from it. The students surrounding her all had pads of paper and were writing down what she was saying.

“Number 3 is A,” she said. “Number 4 is C. Number 5 is C.” She kept reading, and they kept writing, until she said, “That’s all the problems.”

I walked to the front of the class. After everyone had greeted me and taken their seats, I asked the girl what she had been reading to the group.

“Last period I took the math test they will be taking next period. I was just giving them the answers.”

I was stunned, especially at how casually she confessed this. For some time I stood, trying to process what she had said. They watched me and waited, wondering what I was thinking. Surely they knew I could turn them in and they would be expelled from school. I didn’t know what to think of an honors class being expelled for cheating.

Finally I asked, “You were giving them the answers to a test?”

The girl with the answers answered my question. “Yeah, they all know that I get A’s in math, so I just give them the answers so they can get A’s, too.”

I was holding a stack of worksheets (translate: busywork) in my hand, ready to pass out the day’s work. But, at the same time, I honestly wanted to know more about what I had just witnessed. I didn’t understand how they could have such a laid-back attitude toward something I regarded as almost sacred: cheating was something a student didn’t do.

I knew these students didn’t consider me an ordinary teacher. I enjoyed a level of camaraderie with them and now I wasn’t altogether sure that was such a good thing.

I sat the papers on the empty desk in front of me. I was so conflicted by what I had just seen, I decided to explore it further.

“I am really intrigued by this idea of cheating and how it can be OK,” I said. “Can you tell me your thoughts about why it is OK? Seriously, I’d really like to know.”

One of the best dressed of the boys began, “Mr. C.D. Look… What we are studying in math…” His sentence trailed off as if he was struggling to put his thoughts into words. He seemed to be trying to explain a very complicated matter to someone whom he thought would probably not understand. His voice was sincere. “Look. What we are studying in math….” Again his voice trailed off.

A second boy picked up the explanation. “Mr. C.D., we are smart enough to know that what we are learning in math right now is not important for our future. Some things are important for our future. We know that. But, in school, everything is taught as if it is just as important as everything else that is taught and we know that can’t be true. We do know this: what is important to our futures is that we get good grades.”

“In my time, cheating would be one of the worst things anyone could do,” I said weakly.

The second boy continued, “Look, I know you think we are cheating, and we probably are. But, try to see it from our side. Most of us are headed for college. We need good grades. We all spend hours doing homework after school. We don’t have a life. The last time you were our sub you asked what we did in our spare time and we told you we don’t have any spare time. We all know what is important and what is important is that we get good grades. We do what we have to. Isn’t that what people do? They do what they have to? We just understand how the system works and we make it work for us. If Maria can help us get an A on a math test and we don’t have to spend lots of time studying for something we know isn’t worth it anyway, what’s wrong with that?

Everything he said made sense to me; yet, it was all so wrong.

“You say you do what you have to and that’s the way things work. So, when you get out into the real world and some of you are businessmen or bank presidents, or politicians, does that mean you will cheat your customers or lie at work in order to get what you need?”

They looked back at me with pained expressions.

“Then, tell us what you think we should do,” asked the girl with the answers.


I didn’t turn them in for cheating, but for months I have thought about that morning. I thought about what they had said: about the need to do just about anything to get good grades; about never having any time of their own because of demands put on them by school; about everything they were being taught having the same value as everything else they were being taught.

I also began thinking about how a nation is strengthened by the opportunities its individuals are given to express their personal creativity. The creativity of Americans was once the envy of the world. But, if a nation’s youth are robbed of the opportunity to develop personal creativity, the nation will eventually grow progressively weaker and weaker.

When every detail of every school subject is given equal value, students are forced to prioritize everything even though they know this is absurd. Every moment students are required to give their time to what ends up being irrelevant, they are cheated of precious time they could be developing their individual creativity. We grind irrelevant information into the minds of our youth during their formative years and then tip our hats to their interests by allowing them to choose from a short list of electives during their final school years. What percentage of young people might be developing their creative passions if, as they are growing up, they are given time to develop them? Yet, we abort this possibility with our school curricula and their personal giftings are stillborn.

Not everything a young person might learn is as important as everything else he might learn. There really is a hierarchy of important information. For instance, virtually every child dances. But dancing is something we don’t value as a future because we don’t see it as turning into a real job. Again, most all kids are artistically expressive. But, as Picasso said, “All children are artists; the problem is to remain an artist as they grow up.”

Sir Ken Robinson has said, “Schools don’t train children into being creative; schools train children out of being creative.”

What makes something a person does more valuable than what some other person does?

Recently Ellyn Davis wrote an article in which she profiled a research study designed to determine how many hours it takes for a person to become truly good at a particular undertaking. The task involved might be anything from playing the piano or tennis to becoming a computer programmer or mechanic. Essentially, the conclusion the researchers drew was that a person needs to spend about five thousand hours in order to become truly good at something.

Do the math. If a person works at something two hours a day,  five days a week for one year (taking off two weeks during that year), he will have spent five hundred hours on that task. To get to five thousand hours, he will need ten years of two-hour-a-day practice.

The researchers also discovered that it takes about ten thousand hours to become world-class at something. That would take twenty years! If the person wants to become world-class in ten years, he will spend four hours per day working on the task.

The question is “who would spend that many hours doing something for that many years?” The answer is someone who has a passion for it!

I suggest that every young person has a passion to be creative in some way: in athletics, in the arts, in the sciences, in something. But, when would the average school child be able to spend that much time for that many years? The answer is not many. By the time a person is released to spend time on him- or herself, too much time has passed. And, after twelve years of being told what is important, most young people have lost touch with what they had a heart to do in the first place.

We cannot long for individual expressions of creativity while, at the same time, we commit millions of children to being treated as generic human beings and to a school regimen where the only thing in their particular grade they have in common is that their ages are the same.

If your child is going to become truly proficient at what is in his or her heart to do, when will you allow them to begin? And, how many irrelevancies are you willing to let go of to allow enough time for that to be accomplished?

My son, James, once shared a quote with me. It said, “If I will spend a few years doing something no one else will do, then I will spend the rest of my life doing something no one else can do.” This quote became a source of motivation for James. As James’ Dad, my motivation was to make sure I wasn’t putting anything irrelevant in James’s path that would impede his ability to spend the necessary time doing what no one else would (or had time to) do. Today James may not be the world’s greatest dancer, but he is good enough to make a fine living at what he loves to do in life.

We talked about cheating, that morning in Honors History. I can only wonder who has been cheating whom all these years.


  1. So encouraging as a home schooling mom. Yet, so sad for those students trapped. I remember feeling trapped! Thanks for writing.

  2. POTENT! We have been so deeply concerned about this. Thank you for putting it into such unforgettable words!!

  3. You are welcome, Michelle

  4. As a teacher, this article was very frustrating to read. You told a story from ONE day of subbing for ONE class about students cheating on ONE test. Then, you grouped all of education into one tiny little box based on that story. Any teacher who provides students with a multiple choice test as an assessment of their learning deserves to have the students cheat. However, good teachers allow students to use the creativity that you blame schools for stifling to demonstrate that they have learned the material required by their state. As for students believing that everything they are taught has the same significance as everything else, that is truly sad. In my district, students get to choose career pathways and then they take courses (electives) that get them ready for a future in that pathway. Please don’t get me wrong, my district is nothing like the one you described. Over 90% of our students are at-risk (of not graduating) and most are well below the poverrty line. However, despite their circumstances, our students know that there is more to this world than good grades. Colleges would rather take a student with a B average who has done volunteer work, participating in clubs, and is in extrar-curricular activities than one who has straight A’s but never experienced anything. I suggest the next time you see these students, you suggest they visit the school’s college and career counselor because they are sadly misinformed about the priorities of academic life.

    • Kate: I appreciate your comments and I know what I write is very frustrating, especially for career, and highly dedicated, teaching professionals. I write because I am also a teaching professional from a long line of teaching professionals. What I decry is the basic premise under which public education is forced to function.

      I used that one class only as an example to illustrate that young people are not so naive as to believe that every aspect of their education has the same value. Having said that, regardless of the subject being taught, each teacher is tasked with making sure his or her students learn the material being presented. If the subject is not meaningful to the student, but the student knows he must do well, he often resorts to cheating as a survival tactic. I don’t condone this at all, of course, but I do understand the dynamics.

      When education is driven by financial constraints as well as the demand placed on test scores; when children are necessarily treated generically, the individual child loses. In your case, it seems that you have been able to work around these issues and I applaud your school for that. Sometimes, it seems that “at risk” children are treated more as individuals than are their contemporaries who are not so labeled.

      Again, thanks for your comments. This discussion is critical to the future of our children and must continue until results are found that favor each child’s future.

  5. Thank you for this article. It impacted me on several levels, personally, emotionally and professionally.

    I have one child who is very bright, and creative…but not in ways that he would be considered a bright student in school, in the areas of math and science. He is quite creative in language and story building. I often wonder, how his creative abilities may be used in the future, and how they might not be used if he is not given freedom to invent the stories he has in his mind’s eye. He tells me that he has “a need to create!” When I work with him on areas that are considered important by the world–math, science, etc…I see his create light dimming by the minute. Yes, he needs a certain level of proficiency in these areas, which are not his strength or passion, and at the same time, how much is enough in areas which one is not wired?

    Your article lifted my own spirit in that I see on a daily basis that what you are saying is true. In addition, my own spirit sank, as I recognize our own home education program, is in many ways squeezed into the world’s mold.

    We need wisdom as we educate our children, and learn from them.

    • Dear V. Your comment came while I was in Israel and unable to respond. Thanks for what you wrote and that the article was an encouragement. You don’t need to replicate anything about the public school in your homeschool. Do what is in your heart and the Father of your child will not allow you to do him harm. CD

  6. I decided to Home School my son this past year, and this article summed it up for me. My son and daughter are extremely talented at showing cattle and enjoy top marks at school. They were be-littled when ever they missed school to attend a cattle show even though they completed the work a head of time and they remained at the top of the class. They would watch other students leave class that were struggling and go and play sports. They were excused. It seems that they sort the students and decide for them where their focus should be. Also the struggle of the stories I heard from my children of the teachers telling about their private lives and it was definitely things the students did not need to hear.

    • Karen. Thanks for your comment and I know you will do just the right things for your son. Have a great year allowing him the freedom to explore his giftings! CD

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