One of the many missing voices in the debate on zeros is from probably the biggest stakeholder of them all. The students.
I opened up this conversation in my classroom and simply asked three questions. I wrote down the response of the kids in an unedited format. Whatever they said, I wrote down and then waited until the discussion to chime in with my thoughts. So here’s what they said:
Question #1: Why might a teacher choose to give zeros?
The students don’t work.
The student provides no effort.
Teacher doesn’t chase you for the assignment. (To clarify: they were talking about teachers keeping the kids accountable for the work – but they are in Grade 8 so this was their language).
They are mean/strict.
Have high expectations. (Some clarified this by saying they might be too high.)
Want to motivate you to get it done.
Have personal issues with the student.
To punish you. (Ouch….it pained me to write this one down but it came straight from them!)
What about learning disabilities? (question raised by one student)
What about if I don’t know what I’m doing? (question raised by three students)
Question #2: Why might a teacher choose not to give zeros?
They think you can do better.
They give second chances.
So it won’t lower your self esteem.
They believe all students give effort.
They want to give you a chance to do better.
They will chase kids. (Translation: keep them accountable.)
They don’t punish, they don’t take out personal issues on your grade.
The teacher helps with what the student missed.
Question #3: Why might a student take/get a zero?
Didn’t have enough time to do it.
Didn’t want to do it.
Had too much to do after school.
Were lazy about it.
Gave up on it.
Didn’t know what to do.
Wasn’t there when it was assigned.
Knew I wasn’t going to do well on it anyways.
Had to get other things done first.
Feeling snowballed. (Translation: Too much being asked of the student and not enough time to get it all done.)
Look at the language and the tone in what the kids said for questions 1 and 2.
I’ll admit that at the beginning the kids were very much in favour of giving out zeros to “lazy” kids but not to those with legitimate reasons why the assignment wasn’t done. Then they began talking to each other and the students who will most likely be getting these zeros in highschool started to chime in. They started to realize that it’s not to cut and dry and that there are extenuating circumstances in all of their lives. They also started asking if it was ok to give out zeros some of the time but not all the time. Then we got into a whole other conversation about what constitutes “fair” and “equal”. Suddenly even my Grade 8’s realized there is no clear cut solution to this problem.
What hit me hard was the admission two students made to me in private when the discussion was over. These kids said that they just don’t see the point of trying in certain classes because they feel like they aren’t cared for by their teacher. Or even worse….that the teacher only cares for the academic students and will try for them, but not for the kids who are struggling. And if the teacher doesn’t care about them, they don’t care about anything the teacher has assigned. I seriously wanted to cry. They quickly told me that they didn’t mean me (sweet kids).
Whether you give out zeros or not, I encourage you to have a conversation with your students about what the zero is really saying to them and how they are interpreting it. I asked my kids: “Will zeros motivate some kids into getting the work done?” Absolutely, said some. Who then hesitantly added that they’d probably never have had the zero in the first place. No way, answered others. It depends, said a few, who then added that it depended on what the assignment was.
Bottom line: Will it work for the kids we need it to work for the most? Probably not. And I’m getting this straight from them. This isn’t just me talking now, it’s my students. Argue all you want but at the end of the day….as a teacher the only opinions that truly hold the most water with me are those of the kids that sit in front of me every single day for 6 hours.
I encourage you to read this post by a man I very deeply respect, Joe Bower. He sums up very nicely what will happen if you do choose to give out a zero.
To those of you who will choose to comment on this post, please keep in mind that my students read my blog. Be respectful of them. Be critical, but not condescending. Be thoughtful, and not thoughtless. The fact that they were so open and honest with me when discussing this issue is an honor, and not one I take lightly. Being a female teacher trying to get a 13 year old boy to open up isn’t easy. And the ones that were the most candid with me were indeed the boys.