Lying is the Most Useful Skill I have

In the few weeks of training, I had before starting my first semester teaching, my cohort was taught things like dealing with plagiarism and talking to troubling students and creating a teacher persona and how to give good comments on papers. I’m a little miffed because the people that trained me and my peers did us a terrible disservice. Nobody told me that the skill I would need most is the ability to lie through my teeth and give away nothing.

I’ll elaborate because I don’t want to sound like a really boring supervillain. Yesterday, I had a group of three kids messing around and ignoring the work they were supposed to be doing. This little pack had resisted me anytime I told them to do their work for such ludicrous reasons as “you’re not going to learn if you don’t work” or “you’re nearly adults, try to act like it.” Totally unreasonable demands. So, when the truth didn’t work, I lied and told them they would lose participation points if they didn’t focus. They got back to work immediately because I was holding their grades hostage. What they didn’t know because they didn’t study the syllabus is that this class doesn’t have participation points–just a few big assignments. But they finished their work, and each of these students did a great job because they’re clever, but sometimes they’re kind of terrible at staying on task. Lying, the greatest gift in the world, brought out their potential.

“My teacher told me to work, and honestly I just don’t know what to do.”

There’s an activity I like to do when I’m first teaching rhetorical analysis or just critical thinking. I put a series of pictures up on the projector and ask questions about the picture. I’ll put up a picture of a sad old man and ask something like “based on two elements of his face, what was this man’s childhood like,” and I’ll get some devastating responses. After going through different pictures of people and different paintings and asking increasingly more specific questions about elements of each picture, I put advertisements on the board and have the class tell me what the ad wants them to do–but they aren’t allowed to say it wants them to buy stuff because that’s obvious and I don’t let them get away with the superficial easy junk. By the end of the class, most of my students know they’ve been tricked into analyzing things, but they had such a good time with the first few pictures and writing sad stories about old men that they don’t resist or get scared of analysis. The first time I did this I was amazed at how well it worked, then I was furious because it had been left up to me to learn that teachers aren’t even remotely obligated to tell their students exactly why they’re doing something.

It’s a lie of omission because if they ask why they’re studying a dead-eyed geezer, I just tell them “because it’s fun.” If I started that class by saying “today we’re going to analyze texts and form opinions about how they rhetorically influence you,” I’d get the same level of enthusiasm as a child on Christmas morning when it unwraps its third pair of white tube socks. But if I start the day with “today we’re going to tell stories about old people and talk about paintings,” I see gratifying confused but enthusiastic smiles, a bunch of golden retrievers instead of a pack of tired pugs. Lying is just magic.

The best thing I’ve learned in the last year is that lying has a bad reputation, but trickery is useful. I don’t lie unethically, and I don’t tell students who are going to fail that they have a chance when it’s week 14 out of 16 and they’ve missed 11 classes. However, I do keep my students from knowing why they’re doing some things until they have the skill pretty well mastered, and then I let them know what they’ve been doing. It’s a little gratifying moment when they realize they’ve already mastered the skills they need for their next task. Lying did that for them.


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