When students plagiarize

student plagiarizing

Plagiarize This

When I first started teaching, I felt that plagiarism was one of the biggest markers of disrespect towards me. To have a student who would cheat in my class was like a punch in the gut. Unfortunately, some students plagiarize and it is something that all teachers must come to terms with at some point in their career. What hurts most is the reality of how certain students approach school, regardless of the task, their teachers, or the circumstances. As I have grown within the practice, my experiences have mounted and certain “negative” events have even hardened me. The occasional hurtful reminder of the fallibility of youth almost makes me a little colder to “the game” of teaching. I don’t necessarily think that is the best thing for me, or any new teacher, since I am not particularly fond of what I see from many “seasoned” teachers who are affixed to the dull state of schooling. As new teachers, we are equipped with the incredible advantage of dealing with every situation freshly and with compassion. This happens because we’ve never been there before, so every experience is new. While I do not want to lose that compassion and care for each of my students, situations like this drive me further and further away from that ideal learning dynamic.

My first few situations in dealing with students who chose to plagiarize work rather than take the time to actually complete an assignment left me thinking that maybe there was some sort of lackluster reality that educators reach after a certain number of years in the profession. Maybe it is true that after a certain time, you have “seen it all” and you no longer embody that same bright-eyed and bushy-tailed demeanor that faculty of education professors nonchalantly joke about. Maybe there is something in experiencing teaching that, for better or worse, we young teachers simply don’t know about yet. And for that reason, new teachers are perpetually judged and viewed on the context of the idea that, “we haven’t really experienced it all yet.”

That “honeymoon phase” one undergoes in his or her first year of teaching, regardless of the accompanying nerves and anxiety, is truly a blissful experience and one that ought to be undoubtedly cherished. It is also something that you will have to fight to maintain. Small instances in your everyday interactions in the school and around the classroom will chip away and tarnish that zest you have coming in as a raw and fresh teacher.

Teaching is a never-ending fight against gravity. As a new teacher, you will never experience situations like the ones you experience in your first year ever again. The daily sincerity you bring to your school simply cannot be repeated. There is truly nothing like the first time. Counterintuitively, the naivety between both a new teacher and his or her class is as authentic a learning experience as one could arrive at, both for the teacher and the students. It truly is a holistic and experiential learning environment for both parties. Negative blemishes and disheartening moments that occur are yet more opportunities to take action and possibly change the fate of several students.

Teachable moments

In my first encounter with plagiarism in my classroom, I chose to speak to the entire class about my disappointment. I spoke from the heart about how I felt about being betrayed by a student, when I always thought my students would never betray me. I talked to them about my relationship with them and what doing something, like plagiarism, does to a relationship. I talked about honesty, integrity, disloyalty and the consequences of trying to scheme against other people. I hope that my message was clear to the student who got lazy and decided to plagiarize. I also hope this message was salient to the rest of the class.

Truthfully, you never know which words that you say to your students throughout a day will resonate. Resonation often happens to those who the message is not even intended for. Thus, this negative and hurtful situation about a student plagiarizing in my class became somewhat of a positive situation. All my students got the opportunity to learn and take something from my “lecture,” directly or indirectly, that was not even intended for them to begin with.

Regardless of the approach you take when deciding how to discipline and consequence students, especially when dealing with the cardinal offense of plagiarism, let’s hope some of those impressionable minds are persuaded into making positive decisions because of the actions of others. I would encourage you not to be too hardened by negative experiences with students. Sometimes negative experiences are needed. Not only for that one student but also for the countless others who benefit from hearing from a wounded, but still optimistic, teacher; a teacher who takes a negative experience and turns it into a teachable moment about sincerity and other life lessons that are more important than any eighth grade Shakespeare assignment could ever be.


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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