What to Do When a Student Lies

One day when I was teaching my Writing and Publishing Adult Continuing Education class here at FCI Petersburg, I had a student lie to me.  It wasn't a malicious lie and it didn't do any real damage.  But it was a lie nonetheless and, as such, I didn't like it one bit.

The Situation

We were discussing how advances (advance against royalties) work.  I was explaining that the traditional publisher typically offers an amount of money to an author before their book comes out.  I showed how this "signing bonus" is typically paid in several installments and how it must be earned or (paid back to the publisher) before any more money is paid to the author in the form of royalties.

During this discussion the student mentioned that he once dealt with an urban publisher who had attempted to rip him off by offering him $10,000 for a manuscript of his.  In industry parlance, this was for an "all rights" contract where he would be paid a single, flat fee for the title.  This would be an up-front fee and would result in no additional payments regardless of the book's success or failure.

It was fairly clear to me that the man was being untruthful.  This was clear because of both the amount of money claimed to be offered (a very unusual amount for an unknown author to receive from a small publisher) and because of the way he presented the issue.  If this had, in fact, been a truthful statement, he would have not only made a bigger deal of it, but he would have mentioned it more than once.  After all, he did present this situation during a class discussion.

The Non-confrontational Method of Alignment

To handle situations like this -- and there have been a few over the years -- I first attempt to just move on.  By not necessarily acknowledging the untruthful statement, I am able to get the class back on track with a more fruitful line of scholarly inquiry.  In this situation it meant bringing the class back to the primary topic at hand, not the student's megalomaniacal statements.  This way the class could continue on down the path of enlightenment.

In the case where I just move on, I make sure to make a mental note of the offending party so that I can be more cautious in evaluating his future comments.  This way I'm protected from being led astray in the future.

The big plus of just letting situations like this go is that conflict is avoided in the classroom.  This keeps the class environment a healthy one for learning's sake and it gives the offending student a chance to do what is right without chastisement or public ridicule.  After all, we are trying to reform troubled characters, not maintain saintly ones.  It’s a prison, not a monastery.

The Confrontational Method of Alignment

While the non-confrontational method of alignment is perhaps the easy way out, there will be times when it is not appropriate.  For example, if a student lies about another educator, student, or something having to do with classroom management, then a closer evaluation is needed.  My rule of thumb is that if a student is lying perhaps to impress, then it can be let go and thought of as senseless exaggerated bragging.  Though, if they are lying to be malicious or intentionally deceive about a current issue, then something must be done to correct the matter.

In a situation like this, I would make an on-the-fly decision whether to address the issue immediately or wait until the end of the class session.  If it needs to be handled immediately, ask the student out into the hall where there isn't an audience.  Then try to work it out.  Try to find out why the student lied, if they are willing to admit the truth, and if any official recourse is required.

If you opt to wait until the end of the class session to address the issue, quietly ask the student to wait after class.  Then you can follow the aforementioned line of inquiry.

After speaking with the student in question, you'll have to make a tough decision.  The decision is this:  does disciplinary action need to be brought into the equation.  My personal thought is that if the lie isn't actually harming another individual, give the student a firm warning.  This could be all that is needed to bring them back in alignment with appropriate standards of conduct.  And make sure to record the date, time, and reason for this warning.  This is something you don't want to forget because to forget such instances would be to the detriment of classroom order and management.

On the other hand, if disciplinary proceedings are required, then alert the student to this.  They should be informed about their infraction and what is going to happen because of it.  This way it can be turned into a lesson in socialization.  After all, our goal is growth, both inside the classroom and what might come outside of it because of infractions committed in it, too.

Prison Educators: Agents of Change

As educators in prison we have to realize that our students are not necessarily the most ethical or law abiding in character.  This is evident in their status as incarcerated students.  Our main purpose is to effect a transformational change in our students; from darkness to light.  As such, all will not be smooth, but -- God willing -- it will be a fruitful endeavor.  It is a process which must be facilitated and won't always be easy.

We are agents of change.  We assist socially stunted and/or emotionally challenged persons to become so much more.  Take the good and the bad, but hope to revise the bad.  Always remember, our students must go through the darkness to find the light.  We are their guide.