The harm I’ve done; the lesson I’ve learned

I knew that Martin had cheated.

I was teaching EFL in Bulgaria – my first year of teaching – and most of my students were spellbound by my American-ness. After seven months, I was beginning to think that I had mastered the art of teaching or, better yet, that I was simply a natural teacher.

What was so hard after all? Discipline was a breeze: most of my students wanted to be in my classroom. Motivation was a snap: everything I assigned fascinated them just because it was from me. Of course, a few students refused to believe in my American magic, but I had fallen under my own spell and thought of these few as difficult, recalcitrant, even bad.

In fact, cheating was one of the only problems I had encountered in my short time in the classroom. Today I know that I had no idea how to teach writing. I didn’t model, scaffold or even help with revision. As a result, for their first assignment nearly all of my students had turned in essays copied from some famous work or another.

I really believed that these children of a failed Communist state valued accuracy and impressiveness over creative thought. I had no idea that I had played a role in the outcome, so it was hard to tell who was more befuddled by the Fs I gave back on that first assignment – me at what I perceived as my students’ betrayal, or them at my unrealistic expectations.

A few months’ experience had made me a slightly better teacher. I had learned to articulate my expectations more clearly and my ever-attentive students had worked to meet me well more than halfway. It didn’t hurt that the students generally liked me and, mostly, wanted to please me. I rarely received plagiarized papers anymore. Until Martin’s.

He was unconcerned as he swaggered up to my desk after class. He gave his friends suggestive looks as if I were going to proposition him or ask him on a date. I shooed them out of the room, and he planted himself in front of me with an impressive “I don’t care about anything you do” stance: shoulders slumped, hands jammed in his pockets, chin jutted sideways. He assumed an air of infinite boredom. I realize now that he must have been waiting for praise on his essay.

The essay was about his grandfather and his wartime exploits. It was nearly perfect and absolutely fascinating, so I assumed that it was someone else’s grandfather’s exploits. I hadn’t even bothered to finish reading it. After all, Martin’s work in English had been far from perfect to date – when he did it, that was. Frustratingly, I thought that he and I had recently made a connection, and I was angry that he had copied this essay now that we were on the verge of understanding one another. It didn’t matter: he was one of the “bad” kids who didn’t hang on my every word.

Martin was clearly smart, and he had no natural respect for me. He didn’t care if I was from the US or Mars, and I found his apparent lack of motivation more frustrating than anything else I had encountered. I had no idea how to encourage him. Sometimes I felt that his attitude, his unwillingness to do his work, was calling my bluff: I was just masquerading as a teacher. His lack of respect for me fed my growing fear that maybe this teaching thing wasn’t as easy as I had imagined.

I accused him of cheating. Martin was silent for a long moment before he ripped his essay out of my hands.  He raged back to his seat.  He grabbed his bag and shouted his way to the door. Through the noise and garbled grammar, I discovered that Martin had spent hours on the essay. His grandfather was, perhaps, the most important person in his life. He had taught Martin everything. Martin had wanted me to know his grandfather and had worked and worked to show him to me.

I cried after he left. Nothing I could say or do made any difference (and in my youthful chagrin I changed his grade to an A, as if that were the important thing). Martin had long known what I had just realized: I didn’t see him as a whole person but rather as just another kid in my English class, just another one of the bad boys, just another, but not unique. My accusation confirmed his opinion. If I had read the whole thing, if I had listened to the note of honesty that rang through the essay, if I had paused for even a moment, I might have seen Martin, the real Martin, who had tentatively entrusted me with a bit of himself in that essay.  But I hadn’t.

In my whole career, I may never want to go back and fix something as badly as I want to go back and fix that day. But since that awful confrontation, I have tried, in Martin’s honor, to remember every day that I teach whole people, people with lives outside of my classroom and outside of the school. I teach people with problems at home, secrets to keep, and dreams they desperately need to share. I teach people who have amazing grandfathers. Martin may never know that I know this, but I always will. It has shaped my career. It has changed my life.

And I really really hope that it has not shaped his.

20 thoughts on “The harm I’ve done; the lesson I’ve learned

  1. Wow, this is a powerful and courageous slice. I can only imagine how desperately you wish you could go back and change that day, but YOU were changed by that day-and that is the important thing. I also think this slice has the potential to impact other lives as we walk in your shoes and contemplate how we perceive our students. Your honesty is so inspiring. Thank you for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A powerful story. Teachers are human, and we make mistakes. The fact that we are so self-aware of our impact on our students makes those mistakes harder to bear. I hope the rest of your year with Martin went more smoothly.

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  3. Wow. While your whole post is well crafted, these last three paragraphs just leave me speechless. This sentence just shook me to my core: “Martin had long known what I had just realized: I didn’t see him as a whole person but rather as just another kid in my English class, just another one of the bad boys, just another, but not unique.”

    When I look back across my years of teaching, there are certainly those moments I’d love to go back and fix. For some reason, those memories are harder to shake than all of the great ones that come in this beautiful work. Our kids certainly teach us a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, they do teach us a lot. And I am often reminded that I can learn a lot through my failures. I don’t love that lesson, but I know it’s true. I have positive stories, too, of course – and those are also valuable. This one has just stuck with me. (And if I had to bet, I’d bet that Martin doesn’t even remember it – or me. I worry sometimes, but twenty years later I know that kids mostly bounce back from our errors.)


  4. Wow, this is such a beautiful memory. I know that it was a negative event in your career, however, how you choose to remedy it is what makes it so attractive. With teaching we are never fully prepared. Because we encounter so many young lives on a daily basis, we do not know what is going to happen in the next minute. I have learned that I have to think quickly on my feet. I do so much more than teach my content; I mentor my students so much about life. For your Martin, he just needed value. He sought value in his essay. However, if he would have trusted you and opened up to you more before handing in his essay, I don’t think your reaction would have been as it was. We all have these little glitches. Fortunately, you have learned from it and have decided not to sulk. Doing something consciously is the best way to get over that unexpected glitch.

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  5. Powerful story. This is such a well crafted narrative. You did a fabulous job of weaving universal truth via your “lesson learned” into it. Every teacher, every person reading this is moved to examine their assumptions, their motivations. This is an excellent mentor text … on many levels! Thank you for sharing, for crafting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I was inspired by you and some other bloggers who were picking up earlier work, revising and talking about revising pieces. I’d started this ages ago, but it’s hard one to sit with, so I’d let it go. I never forgot the incident or the piece, but I think I needed time and experience allowed me to have a deeper understanding of what happened.


  6. Such a powerful and beautifully written piece! I could so relate to your hubris in the beginning (so many things we didn’t know that we didn’t know!) and then the horrible mistake that you will never forget, that you have been profoundly changed by. I made so many my first years teaching, little and big. The final line is perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Hubris indeed. Now I know what I didn’t know then – and I wonder what I’m learning that will make me different in the future. One thing I know for sure: for me, good teaching and good reflection go hand in hand.


  7. Well! This is really something. I really appreciate this piece of writing on so many levels. First, it’s honest with a capital H. You’re not congratulating yourself. You’re showing how a really low moment can drive you instead of defeat you. Second, I love how it’s put together. Martin changed before our eyes. I was surprised right along with you. Finally, it encourages us all to hold it up like a mirror and see what moments have haunted us, not necessarily like nightmares, but like persistent memories that have the power to shape us. I’m going to do some reflecting to see which of many regrets shows up for me as significantly as this one. Then I’ll have to summon the courage to write and share. This was powerful. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love how you put it: “what moments have haunted us, not necessarily like nightmares, but like persistent memories that have the power to shape us.” Exactly. This is no longer a nightmare for me, but it is a powerful memory. I am grateful that I’ve been able to use it as fodder for reflection and growth.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Plagiarism is a very serious academic offence and if you accuse someone of plagiarism, you better have the evidence. But what can I say, we all make mistakes. The important thing here is that we learn and grow from these mistakes.

    I commend your courage to open up and admit your previous blunder on this open forum.

    Anyway, this response to a comment addressed to me a few months ago may interest you:

    When I was in high school, I seldom heard the word plagirism, though I was already familiar of it since I liked to read journals and research papers. Teachers would give assignments which answers are too generic to consider employing creativity. From time to time, we’re required to submit research papers about certain topics, but the teachers wouldn’t bother to check the originality of the papers.

    That’s why when most students enter college, they couldn’t write a simple research paper to save their lives. They don’t know how to cite sources, how to research different sources and comparing different perspectives, how to make arguments based on the research they did, how ro link different ideas into a coherent group, etc. Most importantly, they don’t realize how serious plagiarism is.

    But not all plagiarisms are obvious. When doing peer revews for research articles, I encounter different types of plagiarisms cleverly disguised as original and for avoiding detection in mind.

    They are too cunning to copy-paste and paraphrase. What they do is copying ideas and plagiarizing from a large number of sources to mislead anyone who bothers to check. This happens often in the literature review and analysis sections. They add some of their ideas in-between while giving bogus sources but with similar topics to further confuse us.

    One time, while reviewing a well-written article, I can’t help but feel that his thesis and overall research were familiar. After giving it some thoughts, I remembered reading an article like that in an obscure German scientific journal. So, I located the German article and I was surprised to find several large chunks of the texts in his research paper were a direct translation. When I did more digging, I found out that his work came from 7 German papers… Needless to say, he didn’t cite any of them.

    This is one of the reasons peer reviewers (and teachers too) should be well-versed on the topic they are reviewing (in the case of teachers, teaching) and its ever-growing literature (both the famous ones and the not so famous ones as experience taught me that clever plagiarists would most likely plagiarize unknown sources). After all, Turnitin and Google search can only do so much.


    1. Thanks for sharing this comment on plagiarism. These days, as a more experienced teacher, I try to provide assignments that show students that their ideas actually matter – and we talk about what plagiarism is (right down to paraphrase plagiarism) and why it is damaging.


  9. Thanks, Amanda! This is a good reminder about the importance of equity and recognition of student individuality.


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