Edmonton teacher faces termination hearing for "obvious neglect of duty" after giving zeros to students

September 2012

When students, as they sometimes do, decide they don’t like a school policy and make a show of defiance — showing up in the T-shirt they were told to leave at home, or with the pink punk haircut that violates the dress code — my general reaction is that they should quit making a spectacle of themselves and do what they’re told. There are rules in society; if you object there are established procedures for communicating and dealing with that fact. It’s hogwash to argue, as is too often done, that any hindrance on an individual’s ability to do whatever they please is somehow a violation of fundamental rights.

Mr. Dorval’s view on the policy was correct: it’s ridiculous to teach students that they can fail to do the work and still get the reward. But respect works both ways: you want it from the students, you have to give it to the principal.

Before the courier came to his suburban Edmonton home this week with a letter explaining that his boss wants him fired, high school teacher Lynden Dorval thought his principal had bowed to the media firestorm.

Three months ago, Mr. Dorval went public with his struggle against Ross Sheppard High School’s no-zero policy, making him a lightning rod for a debate on how to teach a generation often billed as having a sense of entitlement.

But on Tuesday, the letter from the superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools informed him his principal, Ron Bradley, requested his termination for “his obvious neglect of duty as a professional teacher, his repeated insubordination and his continued refusal to obey lawful orders.”

Mr. Dorval, 61, is scheduled to appear before superintendent Edgar Schmidt to plead his case next month.

“I had convinced myself with all the publicity that I wasn’t actually going to get fired,” he said. “From the very beginning, I kept telling myself that this was going to be the outcome. But I guess I convinced myself that something else might happen.”

The physics teacher, who colleagues called Captain Zero, spent 18 months disobeying the school’s rule against doling out zeros to students who didn’t complete assignments or tests, which school management sees as a discipline issue, not an academic one.

Mr. Dorval was put on an indefinite suspension after refusing to heed several warnings and reprimands from the school principal — according to the principal’s recommendation, the teacher once went as far as going into the school’s grades database and reentering zero marks that had been changed by a department head.

News of Mr. Dorval’s suspension prompted a public outcry.

“The students need to develop that intrinsic motivation to do it on their own,” said Mr. Dorval, who has been teaching for 35 years.

Mr. Bradley, who spearheaded the school policy, was unavailable for comment Thursday. But according to letters from the principal about Mr. Dorval’s case, the impetus of the program was to avoid discouraging students and to “hold students accountable for completion of work.”

The Edmonton Public Schools board voted in June to review its policies on student assessment “to ensure clarity, consistency and to ensure that students are held to high standards.” That investigation is scheduled for this fall.

But ahead of that review, Mr. Dorval is scheduled to appear Sept. 10 before the superintendent to address the principal’s calls for his termination.

Edmonton school board spokeswoman Cheryl Oxford couldn’t comment on the specifics of Mr. Dorval’s case due to privacy issues. But Ms. Oxford said the dismissal is an employment issue ­— unrelated to the board’s review of its grading policies.

In his letter to the superintendent, the principal said Mr. Dorval was repeatedly absence in staff meetings — a claim Mr. Dorval says is untrue.

The veteran teacher also sent a staff-wide email condemning the no zero policy, Mr. Bradley said.

“I advised Mr. Dorval that I was not disputing his professional right to express his opinion but … I found his tone and method of communication insubordinate,” Mr. Bradley wrote.

Following the suspension, the principal reported that Mr. Dorval entered the school without requesting permission — part of the terms of his suspension — twice to return unmarked quizzes and assignments, and once to voice concerns about his replacement teacher, Mr. Bradley wrote.

In June, Mr. Dorval told the National Post he chose to fight the policy, in part, because he was planning to retire anyway. But he has decided to continue teaching, regardless of the Sept. 10 decision — because when he was told to clear out his office, he was in the midst of the best semester he’d had in a decade.

“It’s kind of ironic, I had thought about retiring many times until last semester,” he said. “I’ve reconsidered my retirement plan for at least a couple of years.”