This past weekend, Sloan set up a game for me to play. She lined up three of her toy cups and placed a hair bow underneath one of them. She then had me guess which cup the bow was underneath. After a couple more rounds in that manner, we switched roles. I took a few turns hiding the bow while Sloan “looked away.”
I am sure you all know why I utilized the quotation marks in that last sentence. There were instances when Sloan tried to gain the upper hand by sneakily looking at me while I placed the bow. I debated whether to nicely remind her to stop cheating or take more drastic measures…
When I was a sophomore at Mead High School, I was in an honors humanities class. It was a challenging course and the students enrolled in it took the class seriously—including me.
One day there was a pop quiz on the previous night’s reading. We had two teachers in this class and the soft-spoken, reserved instructor of the pair, Mr. Hanson, was administering it. As he passed out the quiz he reminded us to put away all notes and packets.
As I mentioned, it was a surprise quiz and it had the chance to impact our overall grades. You could sense the anxiety and pressure in the classroom as we started on the assessment. Damn you, Mr. Hanson!
About halfway through the timed quiz, our world was rocked.
“One thing I won’t tolerate in this class is CHEATING,” Mr. Hanson bellowed. “Get out of here right now!”
The outburst had all of us stunned, and, quite frankly, a little scared. Our teacher was in a rage, a state we had never seen him close to reaching before. But what was even more shocking was who Mr. Hanson’s ire was directed at.
The student caught cheating, who I will call Glen, was even more soft-spoken than the teacher ripping into him. Small in stature and extremely quiet, no one would have ever expected Glen to have a dishonest bone in his body. What was he thinking?
As Glen hung his head and walked out the door, Mr. Hanson made a big display of crumpling up his paper and tossing it into the garbage can. If we thought it was tense in the classroom before this episode, there was no way to describe the terror in the air now. All of us kept our heads down and eyes locked on our papers as we finished the quiz.
When the time expired, Mr. Hanson tersely directed us to turn in our papers. Everyone was still on edge. We had no idea what was going to happen next. After a brief pause once he had all the quizzes, Mr. Hanson spoke.
“I am going to invite Glen back in,” Mr. Hanson said as his voice returned to its mild-mannered tenor although there was a sense of triumph mixed in.
Glen strolled back in with a wry smile on his face. Something was up.
It turned out that Glen wasn’t a cheater after all. Mr. Hanson announced that he had planned the whole charade with Glen prior to the class and that he would be receiving a 100% on his quiz. The whole demonstration was actually done to drive home a point from the previous night’s reading, I think it had something to do about ruling with fear, but to be honest I really can’t remember. Instead, I took away the general theme that cheating is bad and it can make even the calmest people erupt. I still think a lot about that moment to this day.
So as I watched Sloan attempt to slyly look over her shoulder as I hid the bow, I considered going full out Mr. Hanson on her. But I figured I should probably wait until she is at least in kindergarten to do that. Don’t Blink.
Well, consider me about 10 months late to the party, but as they say, better late than never! Should anyone ever take a moment to read this, let me begin with a little context…
I believe it’s been a full 20 years since Brent sat my Sophomore Humanities class. The same year Brent graduated from Mead (2005), I left Mead High School for a new job in Mead’s district office; I was only there a short time, before leaving for a leadership position in a different school district.
Fast forward to today and, as good fortune would have it, I’m making my way back to Mead’s district office where, as the newly minted superintendent, I get the opportunity to serve a district and community about which I care deeply. Amazing!
Shortly after my selection as Mead’s new superintendent, I received a card in the mail with kind and gracious words of congratulations from none other than Brent Reser! But in addition to his kind words (greatly appreciated, Brent!), he included a QR code that brought me to this blog post. Talk about a fun walk down memory lane 😉
The same wry grin Brent mentions being on my face while wrapping up my lesson over 20 years ago appeared on my face as made my way through “A Lesson on Cheating.”
In this sophomore level Humanities class, my teaching partner and I used fantastic classic literature and stacks of primary source documents to deliver content connected to world history and sophomore English. But as it always is with teachers, history and literature were simply vehicles to help kids learn more about themselves and the world around us, and this lesson was a perfect example of that goal…
As we studied the rich and complex period in history known as the Renaissance, I embedded excepts from Niccolò Machiavelli’s, “The Prince” into our class readings. This 16th century Florentine philosopher was known primarily for his political ideas. One of his most famous philosophical books, “The Prince,” was published years after his death (because he probably would have been put to death had the ideas been published while he was still alive!). Of course, political philosophy isn’t necessarily the most exciting of topics for the typical adolescent brain, but ideas discussed in Chapter 17 of The Prince are fascinating – and worthy of debate. In this chapter, Machiavelli seeks to answer the question, is it better for a leader to be loved or feared?
Ultimately, I wanted the students in class understand Machiavelli’s central premise – it is best to be BOTH loved and feared. Nevertheless, when the ideal is not possible, such as when gratitude dissolves in the face of dire consequences, Machiavelli suggested fear is a more reliable way to inspire discipline than bonds of love.
So, the cheating lesson…
The student I chose as my “victim” (Brent, I think it was Kellen D. that year, am I right?) knew what was coming…he had an important role in the ruse. This student knew that I would yell at him, knew that I would throw his quiz in the garbage, and knew that I would (figuratively) toss him out of the classroom.
You see, I generally wasn’t THAT kind of teacher. Yes, high standards, and yes, consequences for things like cheating. But I wasn’t into making examples of misbehaving students; I wanted my students to respect and love me, but the idea of having them FEAR me never really crossed my mind. But in this lesson – a lesson where I intended to drive home Machiavelli’s point – I wanted the students to cringe with fear.
Now, my students might have thought, “That Mr. Hanson, he’s a good guy,” and some may have even avoided the temptation to cheat in my class based on the respect they had for me (wishful thinking, right?). But, here’s the thing…and the crux of the lesson illustrating Machiavelli’s idea: Being loved AND feared as a leader is the ideal, but at the end of the day, Machiavelli proposed that fear is the more powerful motivator. That is, if cheaters get publicly berated and humiliated in the way that I did to Kellen, Machiavelli suggested that there might be far less cheating in my class.
Every time I taught this lesson (and engaged in this very public act), students commented on how scared they were – and that they were suddenly VERY focused on their own paper. But couldn’t I have just spoken with the “cheating” student after class? Couldn’t I have been “nice” and not made a spectacle of him and his mistake?
Machiavelli did not advocate unnecessary cruelty or violence towards subjects, and he was critical of rulers who abused their power. He argued that mistreatment of people would not win loyalty, trust, or obedience (and these were necessary for the ruler to be successful). But, he said, expedient methods – cruelty included – could be justifiable if there were clear and measurable benefits from those acts. Tough love, you might call it.
Again, talk about difficult and complex (but important) subject to debate with 15 and 16 years olds! Every time I taught the lesson, we engaged in some rousing conversation!!
So, here I am…now having been a superintendent for 10 years and getting the chance to continue that work in Mead. How does this idea play out in my leadership? Is cruelty really necessary to maintain order?
Well, let’s start here: Machiavelli’s advice to leaders in the 15th Century is a far cry from the work of leading school district (or just about any modern organization). I’m all for accountability, responsibility, and high expectations, but this I know; employees driven by fear will be less likely to take risks and be entrepreneurial as they worry about the consequences of their mistakes.
I always wanted to be the kind of teacher kids wanted to learn with and learn from, and that ideal has continued to my work in educational leadership. I want to be the kind of leader people want to work with and work for – and I certainly don’t believe that relationships rooted in fear foster a healthy and productive work culture. And, yes Brent, you’re correct – there are even lessons here about the way we parent and the way we show love to our kids as we hold them accountable for their actions and use discipline in ways that allow them to learn and grow.
Anyway, what a joy to get note of congrats from you and what fun it has been to revisit a lesson I taught almost 25 years ago. It means the world that you reached out – and thanks for sharing this. Best to you and yours and please say hi to Miranda for me!
Dear Mr. Hanson – Reading your comment made my day. I appreciate the additional context you articulately and humorously provided. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to take that humanities course and I am grateful/proud that you are the new superintendent of my school district alma mater…Miranda feels the same way. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to leave such a special reply.
Go Mead Schools!,