Q: I’m a 9th-grade English teacher in Delaware, and I need some help with an awkward conversation. I have a student, Tom, who is pretty average in the ability department. I have a good sense of where he is academically and know which skills he needs to develop. I also know how long it takes him to complete an assignment. We do a lot of in-class work — we have dialogue about the texts we read and write many short, in-class analyses. I’d describe Tom as a solid B to B minus student. But when he hands in homework, he’s an A student. An A COLLEGE student, really. It’s remarkable. It’s clearly not his work. Aside from the high quality, he couldn’t produce that much material that fast. He doesn’t even know half the vocabulary “he” uses in his essays. What I’m trying to say is that I have a very strong suspicion his mother is doing his work for him. She’s made many anxious comments about how his grades now matter and how he needs to do well. His dad has never contacted me, so I don’t think he’s involved. Anyway, I need to tell her to back off. It’s cheating, plain and simple. But I have no proof and am not sure how to go about having this conversation with her. Any advice?
A: I’d first have a conversation with Tom. He’s in 9th grade — old enough to take responsibility for his work. You can share your concerns and give him a chance to come clean. You also can give him a heads-up that you plan to call home and invite him to participate in that conversation. If he denies any wrongdoing, proceed to calling home. If he doesn’t deny it, but wants no part of that discussion, then call his parents without him. Either way, I’d use the opportunity to explain to Tom why honesty matters. Share the consequences for cheating, and explain that, more importantly, you can’t gauge his progress if his work is falsified. Underscore that you want him to proceed at his own pace. Try to find out why he’s not turning in his own work, too. Is he feeling internal pressure or is this primarily about his mother’s anxiety? Does he feel he can’t measure up to classmates? Need extra help? How does he think you can best support him?
When you do call home, I wouldn’t start the conversation with Tom’s mom with an accusation. It’s possible to make your point and get results without pointing fingers. Provide her with a “runway” to tell the truth. What do I mean by that? First, avoid putting her on the defensive. Suggest an understandable (if unacceptable) excuse. You might say, “I know the pressure cranks up a lot in 9th grade, and it can be upsetting to watch your child hand in work you think is subpar.” Then, give her a chance to adjust her behavior but still save face. That might mean saying, “I don’t know if Tom is working on homework with friends or getting help from an outside tutor, but whatever the intervention, it’s too much. It isn’t letting me see how he’s really doing.” If you flat-out ask her if she did his work for him, she’s likely to respond with an instinctive, protective “No.”
Next, listen carefully to what she has to say and respond accordingly. If she agrees to back off, then thank her for her cooperation and continue to monitor the situation. If she gets angry or tells you you’re mistaken, I’d lean on your authority and experience. Explain that you’ve learned to recognize the signs when a student’s work isn’t their own, and that you’ll take action if the behavior continues. Beyond the normal consequences, you could tell her you’d have to stop assessing any work he does at home because it would artificially inflate his grades. I’d make the same points that you shared with Tom — but also add a couple more. Tell her that she’s going to undermine Tom’s confidence in his ability, which will have longer-term consequences than a couple of B’s. Does she really want him to go through school thinking he’s not good enough? Or that he’ll always have to take shortcuts to get ahead? Help her understand why this behavior won’t serve him now or in the future.
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