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Saturday, October 10, 2015

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The sad case of Lynden Dorval

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There’s no higher form of tzedakah than providing employment for others. Those who are under- or unemployed don’t only lose the ability to be self-supporting. Even more devastating is the emotional and social toll that’s likely to occur.

Firing someone is a step that must be undertaken with the utmost of gravity. This is especially true when dealing with long-term employees. It’s for this reason that long-term employees are (and if they aren’t, likely should be) given the option of resigning. Saving face can be a fine strategy when dealing with difficult situations.

In general, Jewish law accepts the notion that an employee does not have a right to “tenure,” yet that doesn’t mean they can be fired at will. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein went so far as to rule that a competent, but not spectacular, employee may not be dismissed in order to be replaced by a “superstar.”

As a teacher, an article in the June 2 edition of the National Post caught my attention. The Edmonton school board has suspended, and is set to fire, a physics teacher with 35 years of experience. His offence? Giving marks of zero for assignments not handed in, tests skipped or exams missed, contravening his school’s “no-zero policy.”

In days gone by, it was self-evident that not doing work resulted in a zero – a policy still adhered to in the “real world” – but in recent years, there has been a trend to disallow zeros. Students are encouraged to hand in work even if it’s months late, with few consequences. Giving zeros, it’s argued, just discourages students and turns them off school. If scientific evidence to this theory has been conducted, I have not seen it. In any event, in the case of Lynden Dorval, the teacher on the firing block, evidence exists to the contrary. His zeros motivated students to actually do the assigned work.

As is often the case, the merits of an argument are given little weight, and questions of policy, procedure and employee-employer relations become the central issue in such disputes. And if that’s the core issue, then it’s obvious the school board has little choice but to discipline him. This might be sad, but it’s legal.

While one must admire Dorval for acting with the courage of his convictions despite repeated warnings not to, a school board is well within its rights to dismiss a “defiant” employee.

An employee need not agree with company policy, but not unlike civil disobedience, one must understand that one must “suffer” the consequences of one’s actions. It’s sad that the net result in this case is likely one that does our students little good and may serve to foster the notion that if students don’t work, the teachers will pay the price.

Initiating change in almost any field of human activity isn’t easy. And ironically, it appears the more right the cause, the harder it is to initiate such change. Those at the forefront usually pay the highest price, paving the ways for others to reap the benefits of their efforts.

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