A teacher learns to balance grace and mercy with high academic and integrity standards.

As a public high school teacher, I have dealt with my fair share of cheaters over the course of my 18 years in the classroom. If even the aroma of cheating wafts into my classroom, I rant, I rave, and I contrive cruel and unusual ways to punish offenders. Then, I find myself disappointed in my response and discouraged as I watch students shrug off my efforts to clumsily open young hearts and minds to the importance of truth, honesty, honor, integrity, etc., etc., etc.

Speaking of integrity, let me shamefully and ironically admit that I hate grading student work. Often, I end up disappointed with some of my students’ work—and that can ruin my family-time mood. While the job obviously demands I put aside my disdain for grading, I endeavor to shun such tasks, especially over the weekend. But, one rainy Saturday, everyone was out of the house, so I decided the possibility of catching up on my grading was worth the risk of tainting my weekend.

How could I balance grace and mercy with my high academic standards?

Thirty minutes later, I regretted my career choice and feared for the future of America. A quarter of my best students—most of whom had professed some level of faith in Christ—had clearly cheated on an assignment. I ranted, I raved, and I contrived cruel and unusual ways to punish offenders. Then, I did something I should do more frequently as a teacher—I prayed.  

First, I prayed for wisdom. How could I use this scandal to better serve Christ and my kids? I prayed for patience and kindness—not strong points for a grouchy, old guy who loathes cheating. More importantly, I prayed for my students’ understanding of the bigger heart issues involved with the cheating.  

I tried to put together a “cheating” lesson, but just could not seem to come up with the right approach. How could I balance grace and mercy with my high academic and integrity standards? Should I even bother with such a profound lesson when cheating is so prevalent and acceptable? Who was I to teach this lesson?

I rolled into school that Monday discouraged, despondent, yet hopeful. 

“Okay, Lord. I’m inadequate for the task. This is beyond me. I don’t even know if this is the right way to proceed. But, I want to honor You, and I want to model a little Jesus here.”  

When the time came, I simply stated my case. “I had a hard weekend because some of you hurt me by cheating. Regardless of how or why, you need to come to me and tell me you cheated. If not, I have to follow the school’s handbook policy for dealing with academic dishonesty. The handbook will set your consequences.”

Expectations of the law. Opportunity to repent and confess. Offer of grace. A good model? I don’t know, but my unplanned, planned lesson seemed to come together as I thought it should, despite my hesitation.

Through my cheating lesson, I moved deeper in my understanding of both God's nature and my interactions with Him.

Within minutes of class dismissal, they came. And they came. And they came. I had apparently severely underestimated the academic depravity of man. Before my nebulous deadline for final action, three-fourths of my students had confessed to cheating on the assignment.  

The first miscreant—a young man who had truly impressed me throughout the semester with his scholastic ability, work ethic, and high character—came to me quietly and humbly. Disappointed in himself, he told me how he had cheated, then apologized. Hmmmm...I hadn’t suspected him. I began to wonder what kind of lessons we were learning together.

Once he disclosed his cheating, I thanked him for his honesty. I explained how the wrongdoing hurt him and how his misdeed undermined our student-teacher relationship. But, because he had come to me, as far as I was concerned, the cheating had not happened, and I considered him to be the same upstanding person he was before this incident. With a sense of relief on both our parts, we moved forward.  

Minutes later, a repeat of the first encounter. Then, another minute, another consultation. And another. And another; each session unique but equivalent in my response.  

Later, others followed as word had spread. I—this seemingly indignant, stringent, demanding tyrant—was hurt by my students and wanted nothing more than to repair our relationships.

Some came with many words; some quietly. Some came alone; others could only meet me with the aid of friends. Some made excuses; others only apologized. Some anguished overnight before coming; some wanted absolution before the day ended. Some were tearfully sincere; others appeared only obligated. Some wanted forgiveness; some wanted only to avoid retribution. And some who should have come never did.

An imperfect teacher, modeling an imperfect lesson in an imperfect classroom, learning vastly more than my students. Through my cheating lesson, I moved deeper in my understanding of both God’s nature and my interactions with Him.  

How did I first come to Jesus? Did I come fully knowing my sin, my need for forgiveness? How often do I fail to see my sin unless the Spirit demands my attention? Why do I wait to meet with God? Which friends help me face my sin? Do I understand how Christ stands between me and the requirements of the law? How many times has Jesus forgiven me for the same sin? Why can I so easily turn from my repentance? How quickly have I forgotten what Jesus has done for me?

I think I wish this had been a May lesson instead of an October one. For months, I painfully watched many of my kids repeat the same mistakes, failing to recall their prior learning. I, too, have stumbled on. Lesson closure? No. As my students and I have moved along together, the tutorial has continued to unfold. Probably a good thing since imperfect 14-year-old students and imperfect 40-something-year-old teachers tend to need grace as we gain deeper understanding through important lessons.  

Paul Johnson has been sharing biology for 19 years. He enjoys teaching, learning, birdwatching, and traveling, especially with his wife and three children. 


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