Teachers grapple with trust issues

Despite her own anxiety stemming from the recent cheating incident, Nancy Holme-Elledge knew she was a professional and had to take this opportunity to teach. She stared at her Spanish III class and posed the question “how can we promote honorable behavior?”

On March 3, the Monday following the Feb. 26 announcement that six students had been expelled and more than a dozen more suspended for cheating, Holme-Elledge asked each of her students in all her classes if they would re-sign the Honor Code, in her presence.

“I spoke to the class and gave them the opportunity to respond if they chose to,” Holme-Elledge said. “Some classes had a lot to say and in others, no one spoke. In order to reaffirm our community of trust we read the Honor Code again, and, as a symbol of reaffirmation, I asked if they would resign the Honor Code.”

Holme-Elledge is the team leader for Spanish III, one of the classes for which the January midterm was stolen. After the faculty caught wind of what had transpired, the reaction was mostly shock and devastation.

“We felt violated,” said Dean of Faculty Eric Zwemer, who teaches the World and Europe II, the second class for which the January midterm was stolen.  “There was dismay, disappointment and abhorrence.”

“I couldn’t quite believe that it had happened,” the World and Europe II teacher Francine Werner said, pointing out that cheating was compounded by the theft and distribution of the exam. “We have to make the whole thing over again. That’s a monumental amount of work that went into that, but that’s secondary. That was our stuff. They took our stuff.”

This sentiment was conveyed by many teachers, who expressed their opinion while the Honor Board investigation was ongoing.

“It was like they had cheated me,” Foreign Language Department Chair Javier Zaragoza said. “I am angry but what is staking more anger in my department was that a trust was violated. My reassurance is that those who are gone, I will never have to think about them or deal with them again, and I am very happy about that.” Zaragoza said he refused to learn the names of the students involved to avoid future prejudgment.

The faculty influenced the Honor Board decisions to the extent that there is faculty representation on the Board, Chaplain Father J. Young said.

Greg Gonzalez is a member of the Honor Board and a World and Europe II teacher, but said his personal convictions didn’t affect his opinions on cases.

“I taught one of the courses which used the test that was stolen, but you have to think about what’s best about the entire school,” Gonzales said.

Now, many teachers face the challenge of teaching students who have returned from suspension and rebuilding the broken trust with these students.

“I’m not going to put a security camera in my office,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t feel like my teaching has changed nor my relationship with my students. In a way it has gotten stronger because we have had some pretty good discussions in class about what happened and why it happened.”
Members of the administration have promoted seizing an educable moment and using the opportunity to discuss the issue of honor with students.

“I’ve had a teacher question about how best to reintroduce a student who has been suspended in this particular incident and my suggestion to them is to have a conversation with the student and to treat that student in a fair way because they have been punished for their deed,” Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra said. “I would hope that a faculty member would move forward and begin to rebuild the trust that has been broken.”

Some teachers have taken an active approach in trying to restore the trust between students and themselves. Instead of giving her class two versions of a quiz as she usually does, World and Europe II teacher Katherine Holmes-Chuba gave her class only one version in the week following the punishments. When her class asked why there was only one version, Holmes-Chuba said, “because I trust you.”

In classes there have been discussions about honor and what the school community can do to make sure that this type of incident doesn’t happen again.

“My students heard a number of practical suggestions that I have, but I feel it is much bigger than that,” Holme-Elledge said. “It is not about being more vigilant or taking greater precautions. It is a much more complex problem.”

The problem, according to many teachers, is the outside motives that drive students to cheat in the first place.

“This is not just a school issue. This is a society issue,” Werner said. “There are whole issues that kids here face on the outside world and the school is just a part of their lives. Kids worry so much about the outcome of their work. As teachers, we don’t think positively or negatively about a kid based on if they do well or they do badly. I think kids think we do, but we don’t.”
Most of all, however, many faculty members admit that they are ready to move on and that they are tired of dwelling on it.

“I felt violated when the test was taken, but kids make mistakes,” Gonzalez said. “Still, this is an important time in our school and I think we all have to work to make sure that the way we act is who we say we are.”