No Zero Policy: My personal reflections

I recently came across this article from a great website teachers should check out: Edutopia

Edutopia had sent out a debate question on social media asking teachers what they thought of No Zero policies. Here in Quebec, it is also an issue. Urban Legends that say the ministry’s program says that zeros are not possible or that a grade cannot be lower that a certain percentage have some teachers upset and saying that we are creating a generation of lazy, entitled students.

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Zeros were no big deal when I was student. Well, they were to my parents if I got one but I don’t remember any student or their parents going to the principal’s office for getting a zero. After all, if a student did not complete the work, that’s what they deserved… or was it?

The first question is ask is why we grade in the first place. The objective of any evaluation is to see if a student has reached the objectives of a task, developed a competency or acquired the taught knowledge. The grade itself is based on a rubric or evaluation grid of some sort with specific criteria linked to each letter or number. Giving a grade a not a punishment for not getting the work done… but what CAN be done when the work is not completed.

When I started teaching, I applied the same rules I had seen as a student and gave zeros…but it did it not always feel right. There were always exceptions that made me feel like giving a zero was not at all the human thing to do. I have seen students struggle with family life situations, having to testify in court agains a parent on the day an assignment was due. I have seen students battle depression and just not be up to it… Adults would take a leave of absence from work, yet these students came in and were expected to battle depression or anxiety and still perform. An adult battling these issues would get a doctor’s note and would be prevented from being fired (at least where the law is respected and human compassion is present). Yet it was ok to ”fire” this student with a zero?

The equity argument always comes up: but other students had to do the work and hand it in on time. The equity argument can easily be answered by: and do the other students have the same issues to deal with? Students are not the sum of  a list of assignments. They are children and teenagers developing. If a competency is not achieved, teachers need to figure out why and find a way to help them.

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It can be frustrating when a student has the potential, is totally capable but is not doing the work. That’s when other methods should come into place… but grade as a punishment? Fairness is a tricky thing.

In my English as a second language classes, I have students who come in and already speak English. They had parents who spoke English or English speaking family in the States or Ontario and my English class is very easy… Should I give them a zero if they don’t make an effort for an assignment?  Would that be representative of their competency in English? Or should I take a look at how I can differentiate the task to motivate them?

I love this quote at the end of the Edutopia article and it speaks to me. I teach humans after all… not content, not English as a second language really… I teach students and I want them to like what I teach them and I want them to succeed…Giving a zero? It’s possible… but hopefully a last resort!

“If you hand me an essay that’s really lousy, do I say ‘F, do better next time,’ or do I say ‘I’m not going to grade this. I expect a much higher quality of work from you. I wrote comments on it. Come to my room at lunchtime, and we’re going to work on it together, and then I need you to turn it in next week’,” Duncan said.

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