Edmonton high school teacher suspended for contravening "no zero" policy
An Edmonton high school teacher says he has been suspended for giving students zeros on uncompleted assignments or exams.
Lynden Dorval, a physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School, has been giving the mark for work that wasn't handed in or tests not taken even though it goes against the school's "no-zero" policy.
The thinking behind the policy is that failing to complete assignments is a behavioural issue and marks should reflect ability, not behaviour.
Dorval said he couldn't in good conscience comply with the rule.
"I just didn't have a choice," he said. "I just couldn't not do it. I tried to talk myself out of it many times, but it was just something so important to me, I just had to go through with it."
The policy was adopted by the school 1½ years ago, Dorval said.
I used to punish students with grades. I taught high school mathematics, and I believed I was holding my students accountable and preparing them for the real world by giving them zeros when they didn’t do something I wanted them to do. I was wrong.
About ten years ago, my principal told me to stop giving zeros. I didn’t understand why she had removed something I was using to control kids. I spent the next few years trying to figure out why I shouldn’t give zeros. Because I did the research, I became a better teacher.
There seems to be a perception that giving zeros means a teacher has high standards. This notion is incorrect for two reasons. First of all, the only standards that are assessable are the ones outlined in our curricula. A student’s grade should reflect level of performance against these standards. Secondly, this perception of high standards is based on some arbitrary standard of behavior and accountability. I would contend that giving zeros to students actually lowers this standard.
I no longer give zeros, and I believe that my standards of accountability are higher than they were before. Giving a zero is equivalent to letting the student quit. Students will say to me, “Just give me the zero. I don’t feel like doing the work.” Letting students quit does not teach them responsibility or prepare them for the real world. Making them do the work does. Letting them off the hook effectively lowers the standards of accountability.
The message I give my students is that they must finish what they start. Responsible adults finish what they start. I want my students to turn into responsible adults. When students are missing something I absolutely must grade, I make them do it. If students won’t, I involve their parents and the school administration. The message I am sending is that I expect students to complete their tasks. That’s accountability. That’s responsibility. That’s life. My standards of accountability are high because I do not let my students opt out of their work.
The reason we assign a certain grade is to give a student feedback on what they have learned. If a student writes a test and gets all the answers wrong, they are assigned a zero on that test. This tells the teacher the student does not know the material and needs extra support. The mark is then put in the context of all their other learning that takes place during the year. If, by the end of the year, the student still hasn’t mastered the material, they fail the course.
However, missed assignments are treated differently. Our approach to missed assignments is to work with each student to find out the reason they did not turn in an assignment. Once a teacher finds out the reason, they work with the student to come up with a solution to address the situation. They agree to a plan to turn in future assignments and the teacher holds the student accountable.
Our ultimate goal is for students to complete high school. To accomplish that goal, we must give students the tools they need to get there. We can’t write some students off if they have difficulty. If a student is struggling, we need to identify the cause and provide assistance.
We don’t let students off the hook and we don’t let them down, either. We set out clear expectations and then we support them in learning what they need to know. We give them opportunities to show us what they have learned. And we evaluate them on the work they actually turn in. That’s our approach to assessment.