Robert stood silently in my doorway. He was tall for an 8th grader—over 6 feet—and his head of brown hair almost touched the top of my door frame. “Come in,” I said, trying to sound serious, but unmenacing. Robert walked the few steps to the round table in my office, pulled out one of the wooden chairs, and slid down into it. The color in his face drained away until it matched the color of my off-white walls.
Robert had been caught cheating on a history test. As the middle school principal, I knew it would be my obligation to decide what the disciplinary consequences would be for him. But, at the same time, I wanted to ensure this was an opportunity for Robert to learn, a chance for us to explore together where his decisionmaking had gone wrong.
“Robert, do you know why you’re here?” I began.
“Yes, sir. I cheated on a history test.”
I then asked Robert to walk me through the thinking and feelings that had led up to the moment when he had decided to cheat.
Part of our professional obligation as a school is to be mindful of the total workload we place upon our students' shoulders."
“I had been very busy studying for tests in other subjects, had an English paper due the day before, and played in a basketball game last night that lasted until 8 o’clock. By the time I got home and had dinner, I was exhausted. I tried to study, but just fell asleep.”
As Robert outlined the sequence of events, the thought crossed my mind that the grade-level coordinator—the faculty member entrusted with ensuring a manageable workload for students by keeping a grade-level calendar of tests and major projects—may have also fallen asleep. That was another issue, though, one I planned to check into later. My main concern at this point was how Robert had handled the challenges before him.
“So why not just tell your history teacher at the beginning of class that you weren’t prepared for the test and why?” I asked. “Maybe he would have allowed you to postpone it and maybe he wouldn’t, but at least he would have known why you didn’t do well.”
Robert’s face became paler, his speech quieter and more halting. “I guess I was just too afraid to fail.”
“Did you realize that, when you decided to cheat, you took a problem which was fairly limited—an F on one test, in one subject—and raised it to a much more serious problem, one which has to do with your character and integrity?”
“I didn’t really think about that, Mr. Bonnell. I just knew I was scared of failing.”
Robert and I continued talking for a few more minutes about the importance of learning how to spot those moments that occur in school—and in life—when we make a decision that causes us to cross over into the moral domain where the implications are far more serious than failing a test.
In the years since my conversation with Robert, I’ve often thought about what we in schools can do to help students recognize those crucial moments when they are about to cross a moral threshold.
Certainly, the growth of character education in recent years and the implementation of mindfulness programs in schools, which teach students specific skills in dealing with stress and not being swept away by panic, have been a boon. We have truly come a long way from the days when students were only supposed to internalize a list of virtues.
But let me return for a moment to the grade-level coordinator mentioned earlier. Surely part of our professional obligation as a school is to be mindful of the total workload we place upon our students’ shoulders. When we are mindless about this, we set students up for failure and for making mistakes of moral judgment. Grade-level calendars listing tests and major projects are a start, but they fall woefully short of the kind of understanding about students and their workload gained only from regular conversations among grade-level colleagues.
In schools, we place moral obligations on our students in how they do their work. We must do no less to place professional—and moral—obligations on ourselves, as educators, as well.
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as The Importance of Grasping The Moral Threshold