You've been caught cheating. Now what?

The College Board announced that they're reducing the number of times a year they'll administer SAT exams, mostly as a way to reduce cheating. They know that cheating is a problem they have to deal with.

Let me tell you about some of my favorite cheating stories. There's a point, I promise.

I worked for four years at a large, suburban, comprehensive ("normal") high school. There was a guy there--one of the highest GPAs, took every AP class available--who cheated on just about everything. He even claimed to have cheated on his SAT. He was fairly open about it with teachers he trusted, and we all knew his story. This student felt extreme pressure from his parents to be perfect, have stellar grades, and go to a top-ranked science college. While teachers didn't exactly encourage his cheating or let him get away with it, they also mostly felt sorry for him. He was a bright kid who could have done well on his own, but his parents were so unaccepting of anything below a 95 he thought he couldn't risk a bad grade...on anything...ever. So he spent a lot of time and energy to find dishonest ways to guarantee he got higher than a 95 on everything. He felt tremendous guilt and shame, but he didn't know how to deal with his parents and tell them that maybe he couldn't always have perfect grades on everything. And it worked! He got into Duke! But before he finished his first year, he had a breakdown and left Duke. He didn't know how to study or talk to professors or be a part of a working group. He only knew how to cheat, and that didn't cut it at Duke.

Once, at lunch with all the other English teachers at this same school, we were talking about plagiarism and how some students get other students to write their papers for them. One of the teachers asked how many of us had written an English paper for a boyfriend or girlfriend in college, and at least half of them raised their hand. They went from complaining about others' academic dishonesty to laughing about their own within a few seconds. (For the record, I never wrote a paper for anyone else. Doing my own work was hard enough.)

The next school I worked at was a small magnet high school for gifted and talented students. A huge portion of my students were smarter and more motivated than I am. But smart and motivated don't always look the same as honest.

When we were working through novels or plays that required students to do lots of reading outside of class, I'd often give some sort of reading guide as homework. Sometimes I wrote the guides, and sometimes I'd use ones I got from a publisher, but the point was to have some basic questions to help students stay focused and attentive on their reading. I wouldn't scrutinize each answer like a quiz, just give a quick look-over to make sure students were on the right track. But once I noticed a funnily-worded answer, and then noticed it again on a different student's work. Once alerted, I looked over things more carefully and found that 90%--not an exaggeration--of the students had the exact same answers. They didn't see the questions as helpful guides; they saw them as "busywork" and "worksheets," so they just copied answers to get it over with. I was angry about the cheating (and gave them all zeroes on the reading guide) but also tried to take their reasoning to heart. The next year, I made the reading guides optional homework. "These are meant to be helpful," I explained. "If you don't need it or don't want it, don't worry about it. It won't count against you. But if you do find them useful, keep using them and I'll give you some class credit for the effort." That year, almost all the students continued to turn in the guides, and almost every one of them just turned in copied answers. Nothing changed! Why pass up an opportunity to pad your grade a little bit with an easily-copied worksheet? That was their logic. It was so infuriating.

A few years later at the same school, a student was arrested for a fairly serious crime. That was in the spring. And the next fall, during staff development before the beginning of the year, the teachers got a short briefing from a police officer. The student's online passwords had been subpoenaed for his case, and when they looked at his Facebook accounts they found secret groups for sharing homework, quiz, and test answers. He was also part of exchanges to share and trade papers, and there was even a school marketplace to buy and sell papers and homework. The police couldn't give us any details or names, but they wanted to warn us about how widespread and organized the cheating was. Very few teachers were surprised by this.

The reason I'm sharing these stories is to let you know that your teachers are not naive or clueless. If you get away with cheating, it's probably not because you're so clever. Some teachers don't want to accuse someone of cheating unless they have incontrovertible proof. Some are too stressed with their job and life to have the time or energy to add "catch all the cheaters" to their to-do list. Some can't handle doing their life's work knowing that the majority of their students' grades are dishonestly inflated--especially if they have too many non-passing students--and it's just easier to live in denial. But it's not because you're so smart and good at cheating. You just haven't been caught and accused. As the behavioral economist Dan Ariely says, "almost everyone cheats, but only by a limited amount."

But sometimes people do get caught. What do you do then? When you've done the wrong thing and get caught at it, how do you handle it? 

Don't get defensive. If almost everyone cheats, then it's unfair that you got caught and are being punished, right? It probably has nothing to do with the actual cheating; it's personal. The teacher doesn't like you, or is overreacting, right? Wrong. If you did something wrong, then you did something wrong. Accept that not everyone gets caught, but this time you did. 

Your defensiveness may come from a sense of how dire the consequences might be. It's hard to accept that you're going to receive a much lower grade, possibly upsetting your GPA and prospects for college and scholarships. But actual consequences are rarely anywhere near that dire. If you'll think of this as (self-inflicted) adversity and be responsible and thoughtful about it, you can get a lot of good out of this experience.

But first you have to calm yourself down and not make things even worse. That's important. This is what you have to tell yourself, as harsh as it is: "Almost everyone cheats, and almost everyone gets caught sooner or later. But not everybody is a whiney baby when they get caught. It's my turn to get caught, and I'm not going to be a whiney baby about it." Once you've calmed down and got out of defensive mode, you can start to deal with it.

Be reflective. I'm guessing you're not a compulsive, pathological cheater. So there's some reason you cheated. Getting to the bottom of that reason--and dealing with that reason--is one of the most important things you can do for yourself ever. Very often, the cheating comes from a sense of "I'm _____, but I don't want to quit the path I'm on." The major cheater who left Duke? He was over-pressured with unreal expectations, but didn't want to quit enjoying his parents' approval. Often students feel over-committed and under-rested, but they don't want to give up the path of being a top student who is involved in a lot of activities. Sometimes students feel under-challenged and un-inspired, but they don't want to give up going with the flow at school rather than finding something better suited for them. Sometimes students are depressed or traumatized, but they don't want to quit the path of having a "normal" high school experience, so they find ways to make it through without getting the help they need. Many students feel that the only way they'll get into college and have a way to pay for it is to be one of the top students in their school, and cheating seems like a viable way to stay at the top--especially if they know the other top students are cheating, too. Whatever your reasons for cheating--you're a complex person; there's probably more than one reason--you need to take the time to honestly and attentively confront them. 

Apologize when you mean it. Offer a heart-felt apology to the appropriate people. That goes a long way, and you'll very likely receive sympathy and forgiveness (remember, teachers aren't naive). But wait until it truly is heart-felt. A sincere apology from a student who has done a lot of thinking and reflecting, even months after the incident, means a lot more than a forced and dishonest apology the next day. Plus, if you don't actually find a way to change your ways, then you run the risk of having to say "I learned my lesson, and it won't happen again" to the same person more than once. And nobody believes you or cares the second or third time you say it. Say it if and when you mean it, so you only say it once.

Ask for guidance. When you've identified the underlying problems and apologized, find an adult you trust and get guidance on how to move forward. Tell the person everything. "I got caught cheating. With everything that's going on in my life, I don't really have time to do all my work all the time, but I don't know how to reach my goals without keeping all that's going on in my life. And a lot of what's going on in my life is out of my control anyway. But just getting lower grades or being less involved doesn't feel like an option, so I cheated. How can I get myself toward a better place?" Or something like that. Be honest about what you did. Explain the underlying problems, not as excuses but as factors, and ask for help understanding that the answers may not be simple or easy. 

Make the changes that need to be made. The changes that you'll have to make won't necessarily be simple or happen immediately, but get going in the direction once you know what that direction is. Maybe you need to back away from some commitments. Maybe you need a less rigorous class schedule. Maybe you need counseling. Maybe you just need to really feel what failing feels like, so you can know that life goes on after it and you won't be so scared of it next time. Whatever it is that you need to do, it's going to be so much more valuable than what you got out of the cheating.

And the others who also cheated but didn't get caught? The ones who make this all seem so unfair? Don't worry. They'll get theirs sooner or later, and they probably won't even get as much benefit from the experience as you will, because you're going about it in the more productive way.

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