I Put 0’s in the Grade Book and I Am Not Sorry For It

Fourth grade math. Yeah, it was in fourth grade when my mental block against math was born. I can almost narrow it down to the day. I remember that we were learning to subtract five digit numbers. I don’t know why, but for some reason I just could not get it. I never seemed to get any of the problems correct. I shut down. I told myself that I was stupid and couldn’t do the work. So, I stopped doing the work. Pretty soon I had paddlethree zeroes on homework assignments in class. My teacher, Mrs. Stewart, had a strict policy regarding work which was not turned in–she did not put a grade in the grade book for it. Furthermore, if you managed to do as I did and get three zeroes in her class, you followed her down the hall to the teacher’s work room where, in front of another teacher as witness (in my case Mrs. Bruner my home room teacher), she had you bend over, grab your ankles, and take a swat on the rear with her big wooden paddle. Mrs. Stewart was, and still is, a pretty small woman, but she could swing that paddle pretty hard! In retrospect, it was more likely the embarrassment associated with the whole situation which hurt more than the swat.

Mrs. Grant was my fifth grade math teacher. She also had a strict policy that work not turned in did not receive grades. However, her method of dealing with those missing grades was a little bit different from Mrs. Stewart’s. There was no paddling involved, but if she happened to run into your mother in the grocery store, as she did mine, then she wouldn’t hesitate to stop and talk to her right there amongst the lettuce, onions, and tiny cherry tomatoes. When you live in a town of just under 3,000 people, the chances of your mother running into your math teacher in the grocery store are significant; and the chances that your math teacher will share with your mother that you have not three but FIVE zeroes in her class are even higher. Needless to say, my mother’s embarrassment cause my backside far more pain than either Mrs. Stewart or Mrs. Grant ever could.

This was, admittedly, a different time. People had different sensibilities back then. Parents sided with teachers more than with their children. Teachers weren’t afraid to administer consequences to students who failed to live up to their expectations. Giving0 zeroes for work not turned in was not only un-controversial, it was EXPECTED! Did I like getting zeroes? No. Did I dislike my teachers who gave them? Yes. Did I learn a valuable life lesson that is still valuable some thirty-five years later? YOU BET’CHA!!

Earlier this evening, I read an article posted by Edutopia to their Facebook page. The basic jist of the article was “Zeroes are bad. Zeroes destroy motivation. Zeroes turn perfectly capable students who would otherwise be successful into lifelong failures who can barely hold down a job at McDonald’s much less be wholly productive members of society.” . . .You know the drill. Well, being a former zero-getting student and a current zero-giving teacher, I posted the following comment:

If a student turns in an assignment, however incomplete, I do not give below a 50. But, if a student turns in no work at all, they receive a zero. I don’t give credit for work not done. Contrary to the author’s detractors, I believe that not giving students zeroes DOES teach a lesson. It teaches students that in room 219 they only need enough math skills to figure out how many 50s they can receive and still pass. In the end, students who don’t do work don’t really care to climb out of the hole into which they have placed themselves. ~my two cents~

I am still reeling from the number of people who liked and who replied to my comment. Most of the comments were pretty positive. A few of them were, well, let’s just say that I’m glad they don’t know where I live! Those negative comments were so angst-ridden and seemed driven by some sort of misplaced guilt or misguided sympathy or empathy or some other -pathy that I can’t put my finger on. Whatever it was, man!. . .some of them must have really had some bad experiences in school as children.

F“Don’t give a 0, give a 50. After all, an F is an F whether it’s a 50 or a 0.” They said. “Why ruin a kid’s whole academic career because they had a bad day.” Yeah, here’s the problem with that. An F is an F to be sure, but a zero is not an F. A zero is reflective of no work being done; and the students who get more than one 0 are not having a bad day–they just don’t care. (Disclaimer: before you jump my case about particular instances where my assessment might be wrong, I leave room for the possibility that multiple zeroes are not ALWAYS, 100% of the time indicative of a student’s lack of concern. There. . .happy now?)

It’s actually fairly difficult to fail Mr. Walker’s Pre-AP English I class. First of all, contrary to what some of my students will tell you, I don’t give all that much homework. The homework I do give is usually assigned several days (or weeks in some cases) before it is due. Second, according to our campus policy, my students have two additional days after the due date to turn an assignment in for partial credit. Third, I am available for tutorials every single day of the week. Finally, I’m a big ole softie and I give extensions to students whom I know need them. Seriously, if you get everything turneddo your homework in on time and try even just a little bit, you will pass my class. Now, earning an A in my class is a different story, but that’s for another post. But, if you fail to turn in work, you will get a zero and I will not apologize for giving it.

You see, something happened all those years ago when Mrs. Stewart paddled my behind in fourth grade and when Mrs. Grant’s revelation caused my mother embarrassment which resulted in her paddling my behind in fifth grade. I learned something more than the simple lesson that turning in homework is important. I learned that if there was something in life I wanted, I would have to work to get it. Just as important, however, I learned that if I didn’t work I wouldn’t be rewarded. I didn’t appreciate that lesson until I was about 30 years old in a dead-end job making less than $10 an hour. You see, in college professors don’t grade work that doesn’t exist. And if you have enough non-existent work and enough failures because of that non-existent work, the school just sends you a terse letter in the mail asking you–no, telling you–not to come back to school. . .EVER!

For me, as a second-career educator, there are ancillary lessons I feel just as obligated to teach as the content of my subject. One of those lessons is that in the “real world” (Ughh…I hate that term) you don’t get rewarded for something you don’t do. If you want to get a paycheck, you have to show up and do the work you’re asked to do. If you want a happy marriage, you have to show up and do the work you’re asked to do. If you want a stable family. . .well, you get the picture. That lesson is just as valuable, if not more valuable, than teaching students how to properly punctuate a compound-complex sentence.

If you are ever in my classroom you will see a Latin phrase written on the board behind my desk: Ex nihilo nihil fit. Nothing comes from nothing. My students see that every single day. It is a reminder to them that if they want success they must work for it, and that if they don’t do the work, they won’t get the reward. I have them write that phrase at the top of each assignment they turn in for me. That way I know that, at least for a few seconds, they were thinking about it.

In Room 402 zeroes are very much permitted. I will never apologize for that.

Thank you, Mrs. Stewart and Mrs. Grant!


2 thoughts on “I Put 0’s in the Grade Book and I Am Not Sorry For It

  1. Thank you for this, Jason! I’ve been following that Edutopia thread also, and I have agreed with you there and felt for you as your one sincere comment turned into quite the conversation. I talk with my middle schoolers about the “real world” — hate that term, too — and I tell them school IS the real world! I appreciate your hard work to teach your students lessons beyond academics. We all know that we teach those lessons to our students, whether we are conscious of it or not. I know from 25 years teaching middle school that my students understand why they earn the grades they do, and they do not expect to get something for nothing! They appreciate my policy that penalizes them for late work (no more than 60%), but allows them to turn in that late work so that NO ONE should ever have a 0 in the gradebook. They want to learn? They want to improve their grade? They always can. I really appreciate all the time and energy you put into this conversation, both on Edutopia and here. Stick to your standards! 🙂


    1. Laura, thanks so much for reading and for the encouragement! Having worked in that real world for more than 20 years before teaching, I know what is expected, what is tolerated, and what is rewarded. Are there flaws in our system? Absolutely! But, there is no perfect system and until the entire education profession is ready for a wholesale change, this is what we have. 25 years, huh? Wow! I stand in awe and I thank you for your dedication and service.


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