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Engagement, Opinion, School Community, Well-being

Honesty in the classroom

a response to Alfie Kohn's 'Beyond Discipline'

(Note: Yesterday Stephen Hurley invited us to share the professional reading we enjoy or are looking to do over the summer. I’m currently in a book club on Twitter (#kohnbc, Thursdays at 8pm pst). We’re reading Beyond Discipline by Alfie Kohn. My post today comes from that reading.)

In his book Beyond Discipline, Alfie Kohn states that people tell lies when “they don’t feel safe enough to tell the truth” (p. 16, 2006). This idea suggests that even “good” learners (and people in general) will lie – and the environment we create in our classrooms will encourage or discourage honesty.

It reminds me of something a veteran teacher told me when I was in my first year: “As the teacher, you bring the weather into the classroom.”

When I was in Grade 3 my teacher had this rule about signing out balls for recess: if we did not return with the ball we would suffer serious, ominous and vague punishment. Most of us were so scared of this possibility that we always returned with the ball safely clenched tight to our little bodies.

One day I let some grade 5s use the ball I had signed out. When the bell rang I ran back to class – without the ball. My teacher stood at the threshold and wouldn’t let me pass until I told her what happened to the ball. I remember being scared to tell her the truth. So I lied. I looked up at her looming over me and told her that some older kids had taken the ball.

Five minutes later she was trooping me through the Grade 5 classrooms, demanding that I identify the miscreants. Those Grade 5s looked big and scary too, so I kept up the lie insisting that I couldn’t remember what the older kids had looked like.

Unsurprisingly, she discovered that I had, in fact, lent the ball to the older kids and was not a victim of theft. Once again she greeted me at the threshold of our classroom, this time at the post-lunch break bell. She looked down at me from great height and in tight clips told me how foolish I had made her look, how bad I was for being a liar, and how ashamed I should feel.

I still feel shame at the memory, the burning of my face as I crumbled into my seat after the lecture.

All this causes me to reflect: how can I ensure the learners in my classes feel safe? How have I treated dishonesty in the past? How might I encourage more honesty in the future? 

This concept applies to behaviors, but it also works for plagiarism: if students felt safe to take risks with their work, wouldn’t they be less likely to cheat at their learning?

Please, share your thoughts!