Teachers Need to Speak Out

November 6, 2020 Updated: November 6, 2020


Twelve years ago, I took a big risk. I agreed to let the Frontier Centre for Public Policy publish a report I had written about overuse of computers in the classroom.

In this brief report, I argued that too much time in front of computer screens is detrimental to student academic achievement. The report concluded that younger students should spend less time in front of computers and more time learning the academic basics.

This was controversial at the time.

Since this was the first time I went public with my views on education policy, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The response surprised me. Within hours, multiple media outlets across the country asked to interview me about the report. I also appeared as a guest on radio talk shows from Newfoundland to British Columbia.

It quickly became obvious that people wanted to hear from an actual classroom teacher regarding the challenges facing public education. While teachers’ unions purport to speak for teachers, the reality is that they stick to predetermined talking points. Most people aren’t interested in listening to another union spokesperson claim that more funds and more teachers are the solution for practically all educational problems.

There are also far too many news stories featuring anonymous teachers complaining about their hardships at work. Hiding behind the cloak of anonymity might make teachers feel safer, but it isn’t an effective way to be taken seriously. At some point, if teachers really want to be heard, they need to speak out under their own names.

For many years, teachers across North America suffered under nonsensical no-zero assessment policies that prevented them from holding students accountable for late, incomplete, or missing work. No-zero policies basically told teachers that they could not give students a mark of zero when they refused to hand in assignments. Instead, teachers are expected to evaluate students based on what they chose to submit.

As virtually all classroom teachers know, no-zero policies might work in an ivory tower, but they are disastrous when implemented in classrooms with real adolescent students. It doesn’t take students long to figure out that they can just pick and choose which assignments to submit. This makes a mockery of report card marks since no-zero policies reward the students who do not hand in all their work.

No-zero policies are the brainchild of assessment consultants who make their living peddling impractical ideas to school boards around North America. Fortunately, Edmonton physics teacher, Lynden Dorval, decided he had enough when, in 2012, he publicly challenged his school’s no-zero policy.

Not only did Dorval refuse to follow the policy, he spoke to the media about his concerns. The public was outraged at the absurdity of no-zero policies in Edmonton schools and was shocked to find out that the policy had become common in many other school divisions. When I followed this story up with a research report titled “Zero Support for No-Zero Policies,” people became aware that the no-zero approach is a theory without evidence.

Thanks to Dorval’s public resistance and my subsequent research report, no-zero policies were dealt a blow across Canada. A number of provincial education departments, notably Ontario, Manitoba, and Newfoundland, withdrew their de facto support for no-zero policies. Had Dorval and I not spoken out, it’s entirely possible that no-zero policies would be far more widespread today.

Unfortunately, there’s a widespread misconception that teachers aren’t allowed to speak out on education policy. While it is true that teachers should not directly criticize their employers, they do have the right to comment on education policy. In fact, it may be considered to be a professional responsibility to speak out.

In addition, teachers with permanent contracts have tenure, which means that they cannot be fired without just cause. Tenure protects teachers from being arbitrarily terminated, which means that they can speak out publicly on important education issues.

If teachers don’t speak out, then there is little chance that the public is going to hear about the real challenges facing our school system. Given that teachers are professionals and experts in what happens in classrooms, it makes sense that parents, taxpayers, and other members of the public will want hear what teachers have to say.

It’s time for more teachers to speak up. They have a message that desperately needs to be heard.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.