Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Prove To Me That You Don't Have A Sister," Or What is Real?

I never wanted to be a teacher, but  here I am, almost at my twentieth year of teaching English as a Second Language. At the time when I was still trying to avoid it, I took the Meyer- Briggs personality test, hoping to find my ideal future profession. However, the results clearly indicated that teaching really suited my personality type (ENFJ), and one of the recommended careers was that of a foreign language instructor.

So finally at the age of forty, I landed a job teaching ESL at a private college. Usually I am happy with my choice of vocation, and I don't get discouraged too easily. However, when  some years ago I found out that several of my students had cheated in an exam, and it wasn't clear whether anything could be done about it, I just wanted to quit.

Yes I know that it was a defeatist response, and many would  argue that it is natural for students to  cheat;  but that case was different. The students did not actually cheat during the exam, so nothing unusual was recorded, but somehow they had obtained a copy of the answer key beforehand and memorized it.

As English is not a science and the students did not memorize only those  questions with multiple answers, but  braved the open questions as well, their misconduct was obvious to all of us in the English department. Yet when the case was presented to the legal department of the institute, the response was that it was tricky. Since the students were not caught in the act, there was no real proof.

This was the exact moment when I lost heart; while I understood that students would do everything to pass a test, I didn’t expect such an answer. Clearly several identical exams which gave the same  answers, as those written by a faculty member, in a concealed  answer key, could be considered real proof.

Sometimes legal advice has little to do with real life or with common sense; this one demonstrated lack of knowledge and understanding of our field, and a preference for not taking a stand. In  Hebrew we have a sad joke about the legal world -- it is not enough that you don't have a sister, you have to prove it to me. 

And that is exactly what we had to do, we wrote a detailed letter recording the events, explaining that in language/literature there is no such thing as two identical answers, and that a writing style is our version of a DNA. There were other arguments as well, but they pertained to the academic and language abilities of those particular students.

In a preliminary hearings each of  the students strongly denied cheating. Moreover, they used the exact argument of the legal department “we were not caught copying during the exam so there was no real proof.”

In spite of their denial, in a meeting of the faculty after the hearings, we decided to send a letter  to each of the student notifying him/her of the next step: a formal appearance in front of the disciplinary committee, which could result in expulsion. At the end of the letter, however, we added that that there was still a way out, that there was a second option: each could take another test which would determine the final grade. This offer, however, was only good for a specifc period of time.

We were not too surprised to hear that all the students chose the second option.

It was a serious matter, and we could have insisted that the students would appear in front of the disciplinary committee, and face a serious penalty. Instead we, a group of female teachers, came up with a humane, yet practical solution. I hope that the students learnt their lesson, but the way we handled the crisis back then, restored my faith in teaching and in common sense.

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