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What to Do When You Suspect a Student But Can’t Be Sure

Remember the last time you suspected a student of something?

Maybe Erica’s wandering glances had you wondering if she was cheating.

Brandon wouldn’t look you in the eye & you just knew he had to be lying.

Or Charlie’s nervous laughter made you suspect he really had stuffed a fellow student into a trash can when the lunch monitor forgot to show up.

You suspected them, but you weren’t 100% sure if they actually did it. Or maybe you thought they did, but something just seemed a little off – and you just weren’t certain whether or not you should pursue it.

My former principal Bill Blankschaen called these situations “gray hills” and he would often remind us, “Don’t charge a gray hill.” At first I wasn’t sure what I thought about this. We shouldn’t let them just get away with it, right?

But over time I started to see the wisdom behind not rushing to conclusions and charging those gray hills.what to do when you suspect a student has done something but you can't prove itwhat to do when you suspect a student has done something but you can't prove it

You see, sometimes a battle isn’t worth fighting. Sometimes pursuing an uncertain matter will only harm your relationship with that student and not really do any good in the end.

We can charge those gray hills with all our might, and we might even “win the hill.” But as we stand victoriously at the top, we might realize we did way more harm than good. And the hill didn’t really matter all that much in the first place.

But at the same time, should we really just let the student get away with what we think they did?

It’s a bit of a pickle, and often we’re not quite sure how to proceed. But we have a few options. Let’s see which one makes the most sense.

Choices for Handling Unclear Situations:

  1. Punish the student you think is at fault. This mistake has been made over and over by well-intentioned teachers. Maybe you have done this yourself, or maybe you or your child has been on the receiving end of undeserved discipline. If you happen to be wrong & unjustly punish the student, you will severely damage the teacher/student relationship and potentially cause a multitude of other problems. At best, you are definitely charging a gray hill, risking casualties when the battle you’re fighting isn’t even a clear conflict. If this has been your habit, please reconsider.
  2. Put on your detective hat and conduct a thorough investigation. Sometimes, you can figure out everything with a few well-placed questions to the right students. Other times, you’re not going to learn what happened without conducting a long investigation that will put students in difficult situations. And you still probably won’t get to the bottom of it. In this case, the investigation is probably not worth your time and will likely do more harm than good.

  3. Ignore the situation. Although doing nothing is sometimes the best course of action, often we do nothing because we either don’t know what to do or are just too busy. We cannot give in to the temptation to do nothing because it’s easy, since this can cause students to feel like their behavior was acceptable or that they’ve gotten away with wrong. You don’t have to do nothing – there’s one more option.
  4. Speak truth to the students but reserve punishment. This gray hill is not worth charging, but it is worth addressing. Speak to the student(s) you think may be involved and explain the truth. Tell them that you don’t know exactly what happened but they do (and if you’re teaching in a Christian school, you can add that God knows, too). If they didn’t do anything wrong, then they don’t have to worry about anything. But if they did, they need to reconsider their actions. Explain to them again what the correct behavior should have been and what they should all do in the future if the situation arises again.

You may worry that a student is getting away with something, but you don’t need to be concerned about this. The beauty is that one of two things will happen. Either:

  1. The student will learn his lesson and correct his behavior. If this happens, you’ve accomplished your goal.
  2. The student will not learn his lesson and will repeat the wrong behavior. In this case, you will be watching him and aware of the potential problem. The hill will likely no longer be gray and you will no longer give him the benefit of the doubt. There can be no question that you have been more than fair when you administer the appropriate consequences.

How do you typically handle “gray hill” situations? How would you like to handle them differently in the future?


What to Read Next
  • I hope you teach in a private school. Public school teachers should not bring god into the classroom in any way, shape, or form. My kids would tell you that there is no god.

  • I love these thoughts! As a first year teacher at a Christian school I have run into many situations like these and didn’t know what to do. I tend to “play it safe” or ignore situations that arise when I don’t know what to do. Your advice is so helpful! Thank you.

  • Since I teach at a public school, I wouldn’t use the “God knows” tactic. But you have given me a lot to think about. I think when I have this talk, with a student I suspect of cheating, I’ll explain that they have damaged their trust relationship with me and with any other students who know the truth. And the long-term consequences are that they have lost an opportunity to learn something, to practice a skill, or to move knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. This WILL come back to them, either in future work for me, such as future tests, and in their future classes. In short, their cheating didn’t hurt me one iota, but it might have damaged their relationships and their future…for something as insignificant as a number on a piece of paper.
    I’ve been reading a lot about growth mindsets lately, and this works with what I’ve been teaching my students about the benefits of “failure”.

  • I tend to charge that “gray hill” so I appreciate your alternative. Thank you for giving a Christian perspective to education. Even though I teach in a public school, being a Christian is a part of who I am and is with me in the classroom even if I never mention it. We all should “Teach for the Heart.”

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