Cheating, Communism and the Balkans

Cheating must be an American concept.

That’s the only explanation I can give as to why it’s so difficult to explain to my Albanian students why it’s not okay to copy and paste directly from Wikipedia and turn it in as your homework. Or why it’s not okay to give your friend the answers to a test while I’m standing right there.

In the beginning of my time in Shkoder, cheating was more of a shock than a frustration. Reaally?! You’re going to copy off his paper right in front of me?? And smile when I give you my best “stop it right now, I’m a teacher, please respect me” look?! Okay, I see how it’s going to be. Bring it on.

But now it’s reached the point of shear befuddlement. I’m aghast and speechless every time, probably because over the last year I’ve become so invested in these kids and this community. It’s so hard to believe when I see it and hear because these people are like my family, and no one wants to think badly of their family. So instead of assuming my students are just bad kids and Albania is full of criminals and people who deserve the life they have, I decided to dial my anger back. Time to try and read between the lines and understand why cheating seems to be perfectly acceptable in the Balkans.

Like everything else in this region, I think it has a lot to do with its communist past. Recently I asked one student how he did on an exam and he told me, “Well, we helped each other on the test so we could both do better”. I kind of cocked my head to the side and said, “So you cheated?” in utter disbelief. “No! We just helped each other.” And I repeated, “So you cheated. That’s cheating.” But for every time I claimed he’d cheated, he just repeated that it wasn’t cheating to help a friend when they don’t know the answer.

Where is this coming from?! It’s like trying to convince someone the sky is blue when they’ve been told their whole life that that color is purple. It’s just not going to work. During communism, people had to work together and teach each other. Every thing was communal and people shared just to survive because it was the only way. You depended on the kindness of neighbors and friends to make it thought. And it became expected that if you new the answer and your friend didn’t that you’d help him. It was just the right thing to do. You had to look out for each other after all. And this mentality of helping your friends and “hospitality” spread to what most of the western world considers blatant cheating.

This explains a little bit why when someone is reading out loud in class the whole class shouts and corrects him every time he makes a mistake. And if I ask someone a question who doesn’t know the answer, the kid next to him will whisper the answer in his ear in a very obvious fashion.

I can only ignore it for so long. When students stand up and read entries straight off of Wikipedia for their homework assignment or turn in an essay that is copied straight from the web (highlighted links and all), it’s pretty hard to turn your back. These kids want to study at universities in America and all over Europe. They’re going to need to figure out how to keep their eyes on their own papers and site sources at some point. I might as well start teaching them now.

But how do you demonstrate the importance of doing your own work when those around them who never study and cheat get better grades? There’s no punishment for cheating in Albania and most teachers either participate, encourage it, or turn their back when they see it. And I seem like the crazy one who is shocked when the best kids in class do it.

Maybe it’s a Balkan thing, maybe it’s a communism thing, or maybe it’s an Albanian thing. But hopefully in the next few months I’ll be able to hit the message home. It’s heartbreaking to hear an incredibly talented and smart kid admit to cheating. Especially when it’s on a test as important and world-renowned as the SAT or TOEFL. But then I remember most of these tests are not accredited to be taken in Albanian and understand why.

I think Albania has a bright future and I think my students will be the ones to take it there. I only hope they learn how to think for themselves and do it honestly before it’s too late. Wish me luck!


“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”


2 thoughts on “Cheating, Communism and the Balkans

  1. The students are so lucky to have a smart teacher like yourself! It is better to tell them the truth otherwise certainly they will discover it by themselves but it might be a little bit late and at no benefit at all.
    You are surprised with what you are faced and state “there are no punish,ent for cheating….” I would like to assure you that generalizing doesn’t help….or it might be a predominant attitude which I regret a lot but it hasn’t been the same at least regarding the examples you are bringing to better understand the many factors influencing our current situation. You emphasized the past and some of the truths of that past and tried to use these background in figuring out the reason behind “the big cheating phenomena” but I dont fully agree with you since those values of communal living are what you as volunteer promote or what western community living, awareness promote on daily basis in order to have a peaceful life in their communities….
    Anyway there are many other reAsons encouraging this kind of very demeaning attitude which children don’t understand but are people like you and the few Albanian teachers who still do the teaching out of love and at least have the energy to offer that love without conditions as once upon a time. We had wonderful teachers who would resonate and sparkle like stars ….and for the truth’s sake are still recalled with nostalgy and love….
    The children in Shkodra are lucky to have you!

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