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Voices: A Matter of Trust

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With five years of empirical classroom observation behind me, I know the honor system works. But I hadn't thought much about why until I saw Mel Gibson's movie The Man Without a Face.

In the character of Justin McCloud, Gibson appears before a child-welfare bureaucrat. A lawyer asks why he hasn't verified something a boy has told him. Gibson replies that a teacher can't teach trust unless he first trusts his student. Even the lawyer can't argue with that.

But can we ever really trust kids? In a study released a year and a half ago by Michael Josephson, founder of the private Josephson Institute for Ethics, 61 percent of high school students admitted to cheating on an exam at least once. A survey reported in The Boston Globe put the number at 75 percent.

I have no scientific surveys, only my experience in the classroom. I have concluded that the more opportunities students have to make their own choices, the more frequently they choose what's right.

During my student-teaching days, I had a creative, pragmatic master teacher. Tired of students coming to class without pen, pencil, or paper and then using that as an excuse to idle rather than to work, she maintained a small store in her desk from which students could purchase necessities. When I got my own classroom, I did what every good beginner does: I borrowed her idea. I set aside a cabinet at the rear of the classroom labeled "Mack's Student Store.'' What I hadn't counted on were continual interruptions: "Mrs. Mack, do you have change for a 20?'' "Mrs. Mack, I need a pen, but I don't have any money.''

So the store went to the honor system. Next to the supplies, I kept a small amount of change and a stack of blank IOUs. The students didn't believe it. "You want me to make my own change?'' "I can leave an IOU?''

Once assured the system was for real, students availed themselves of it often, as if continuously to test my sincerity. There was some minor pilferage and a few bowed heads during discussions on the damage to self-esteem caused by stealing. But the payoff was far greater than the few dollars it cost me. At the end of the store's first year, a student wrote in a journal: "I didn't believe you when you told me to help myself. Nobody trusts me.... What I learned in your class is that I'm OK.'' And people ask why I teach.

When I give homework, I expect it to be done, and students respond to the roll call with the number of points they think they earned for it. Forewarned that it could be embarrassing to have claimed completion only to have a lie discovered later on, they answer honestly--mostly. The students take responsibility for their own efforts, unable to blame the teacher for a low grade they assigned themselves. They learn that the most important assessment is an honest self-assessment.

A few semesters ago, in my senior writing class, two students turned in nearly identical essays. One put his on top of the stack, the other near the bottom. (Students do not always give teachers a lot of credit for diligence and brainpower.) It was B work--both of them--but I wrote the following note in lieu of a grade: "Dear Steve and Bill, you can either share the B grade--40 points each--or the one who wrote the paper can have the B and the other a zero. Your choice.''

The following day, a very sheepish Bill confessed. He urged me to give Steve the B because he had earned it. He would take the fall because, he said, that's what he had earned.

I've read plenty of reports about teenagers and their lack of morals and ethics. And I'm no Pollyanna implying that an honor system for grades will change the future of the world. But perhaps we need to focus less on our kids and more on the dysfunctional families many live in, the frightening neighborhoods they walk through, the corrupt government officials and worldwide ethnic wars they read about, the heroes accused of beating wives and molesting children. It's unrealistic to expect our kids to be any better than their role models. If we provided an atmosphere in which adults are trustworthy, and the kids are trusted, we wouldn't have any more fears for the next generation than our parents had for ours.

The author teaches English at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School in Los Angeles.

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