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Alberta teacher suspended for giving out zeros fears colleague will be punished

EDMONTON – An Edmonton teacher whose suspension stirred a national debate over whether students should be given zeros says he worries for a second teacher going down the same road.

Lynden Dorval said Wednesday he has counselled colleague Mike Tachynski to avoid getting suspended as well. He said it wouldn’t do more to further the cause.

“But he’s adamant,” said Dorval. “He’s very unhappy with how things are going at school.”

Dorval, 61, was suspended a month ago from Ross Sheppard High School for refusing for more than a year to stop handing out zeros for assignments that hadn’t been completed.

On Tuesday, Tachynski, a 34-year-old science teacher at the same school, told Edmonton Public School Board trustees that he, too, has been handing out zeros and expects to be punished.

Tachynski didn’t speak to reporters after Tuesday’s meeting and couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

Dorval, a physics teacher, said he and others met with Tachynski two weeks ago when Tachynski was thinking about taking a public stand on the issue. Tachynski, he said, had already received two warning letters from the school principal about the zero grades and had gone back to the no-zero policy, but found students weren’t responding.

“We just sort of tried to talk him out of it because what’s happening with me is in the public eye anyways, so there’s no point throwing yourself on the sword, too, because it has been talked about so much already.

“He emailed me back and said ‘I have a compromise. I think I’m going to put zeros back in again and see what happens.'”

Dorval has spoken about his plight across the country on radio and TV shows. Dubbed the zero-hero by some, a student in his school has even started a petition to get him reinstated.

Some, like Edmonton artist Matt Day, are literally singing his praises in a ditty making the rounds on the Internet.

“If kids compete, someone might get beat and that’s not politically correct,” croons Day, before returning to the refrain, drawing out the R for effect.

“What’s imporrrrrrtant is that everyone feels good.”

It’s not all laudatory.

The suspension letter stated Dorval’s protest had overstepped the bounds of acceptable behaviour. He had refused the principal’s order to attend staff meetings and had even logged in to change student marks to conform to his zero-grading policy.

That prompted one newspaper columnist to suggest Dorval has in fact given his students the best example possible of real world life: when you rub the boss’s nose in his or her authority, you’ll soon find yourself with lots of free time.

The Edmonton public board plans to revisit the no-zero issue in the fall. Currently it allows school principals discretion on whether to use no-zero.

The no-zero policy reflects the educational theory that a zero is counterproductive because it doesn’t truly reflect what a student knows about a subject and also sends a cold, empirical message that the teacher doesn’t care to find out why the work wasn’t done.

Supt. Edgar Schmidt of the Edmonton board has made it clear that students who don’t do the work are expected to make it up to pass a course. Dorval said teachers don’t have the time to track down wayward students, and when they do, few ever complete the makeup assignment.

Dorval said a zero grade, along with the steep resulting drop in an overall average, has proven to be a strong motivator for students to come to him to get the work done.

Tachynski told trustees the same thing Tuesday.

Dorval remains on suspension and expects to be fired from his job at the earliest opportunity in the fall.

He said he has abandoned his plan to challenge the suspension on the grounds the principal exceeded authority by ordering teachers to not hand out zeros.

He said a lawyer advised him the case would be tough to win.

“Apparently its been adjudicated before, this whole idea that the principal can give a directive (on grading),” he said.

Dorval said his professional peers at the Alberta Teachers’ Association have been unhelpful, particularly on fighting the suspension.

“The ATA were just absolutely useless,” he said. “They didn’t even offer to help me come and talk to a lawyer. They didn’t even hear my situation.”

Brian Andrais, the ATA’s co-ordinator of member services, couldn’t comment on Dorval’s case, citing privacy issues.

But he said that teachers who receive disciplinary notices can get legal help from the ATA if the association feels the case raises larger issues.

The ATA’s main goal, he said, is to help a teacher through the disciplinary process, making sure his or her rights are protected while seeking possible solutions, such as a transfer to a different school.

But he said when a school board has acted within its authority, the ATA’s advice is clear: “You will follow it.”