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. 

'It's a way of pushing kids through even though they're not actually doing the work. '—Lynden Dorval, teacher

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.

Students' mark based on completed work

Teachers were told to no longer give zeros. Instead an uncompleted test or assignment would be marked with a comment.

The student's mark would then be based on whatever work is done.

Student reaction to suspension

"He shouldn't even be teaching anymore. If he wants to hand out zeros, he should be doing some other job — not a teacher." 

—Ryan Grouette, Grade 10

"If students show up they deserve a minimum mark. A zero seems a bit extreme."

—Cindy Smith, Grade 11

"I think he should be allowed to teach. He's a good teacher from what I hear."

—Cassandra Gregory, Grade 12

"It's what they call social promotion," Dorval said "It's a way of pushing kids through even though they're not actually doing the work. It's a way of getting them through, getting their credits and of course making the staff look very good."

Teachers were instructed to use their "informed professional judgement" at the end of the year when handing out marks, he said.

"Some would, in fact, lower the mark on what wasn't done," Dorval said. "Other teachers would just let the mark go, so there was a real inconsistency on how (the policy) was being applied."

Dorval believes the policy leaves students with the impression they don't need to be accountable for their actions, he said.

'Student should be accountable'

"That's against what I've been doing my whole career because I believe the student should be accountable for what they're doing."

Dorval said he always gave uncompleted work what is called "reluctant zeros," where his students were given a number of opportunities to make up the assignment and have the zero replaced with a mark.

"Most of my students did that," he said. "By the end of the year, I hardly had any zeros at all."

He does recall however, one student who had only completed six of 15 items.

Parents are largely unaware of the policy, as teachers were instructed not to speak about it, he said.

Other schools in the Edmonton public system also use no-zero marking, he said.

Schools as far away as Ontario and Texas had also adopted, but later abandoned the philosophy.

Most teachers support him, Dorval says

Dorval was suspended earlier this month and is no longer allowed on school property.

But he said most teachers at the school support him and are envious that he can afford to take a stand.

"I have 35 years. I don't really want to retire now, but if I have to, I can retire and live on my pension.

He accepts by going public he will likely be fired.

"To me this is the right thing," he said. "It had to be done."

The Edmonton Public Schools said Dorval was not suspended over the zero grade policy.

"The situation is far more serious and complex," the district said on its Facebook site. "This is a staff discipline issue and we can’t speak to the specifics of this individual case.

"The School Act authorizes suspensions for only three reasons: if there are reasonable grounds for believing the teacher has been guilty of gross misconduct, neglecting the teacher’s duty or neglecting to obey a lawful order of the board."

The superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools, Edgar Schmidt, refused to discuss the specifics of Dorval's case during a hastily-called news conference Thursday afternoon.

Instead, he told reporters that it's important for teachers to know and follow the rules.

"When an assessment plan has been put in place at a school level, it's my expectation that every staff member will stick  to that plan and make sure they are supportive of the work of the entire staff and the principal in relation to student assessment," Schmidt said.

"And giving good information to students about the work they are actually doing."

Dorval believes he was suspended for insubordination. He will likely appeal his suspension.