Area teacher-comic zeros in on what’s wrong with schools

“In our generation, we eliminated the stupid kids.”

Relax, it’s just a joke from an old guy – professional stand-up comedian and schoolteacher Ken Valgardson. See, if there’s anybody who can find humour in the No Zeros brouhaha, it’s this man. Not only that, but Mr. Valgardson is a teacher who retires in couple of weeks – so he can say whatever the hell he wants without fear of getting transferred to gym teacher’s assistant in Lloydminster.

“The kids hate it, the parents hate it and the teachers hate it,” he says of the No Zeros policy. And where’s the punch-line?

“There isn’t one.”

The row erupted a month ago when a teacher at Ross Sheppard High School was suspended for insubordination in rebelling against a school rule that prohibits failing a student. Another teacher there may face the same fate. The reaction from the public has been twofold. For starters: WTF? They don’t give zeros? When did that happen?

The idea came in about three years ago, Valgardson says. Some schools use it, some don’t. It’s basically part of the same concept as America’s “No Child Left Behind” policy – that had exactly the opposite effect of the one intended. Same goes here, Valgardson says. He says he’s quitting because he’s “fed up.” No Zeros, he adds, is just one of several grievances that add up to a lot of frustrated, demoralized, pissed-off teachers.

“We have these anti-bullying things going on in the schools – but the teachers are being bullied,” he says. “‘If you don’t do this, you won’t be working for us!’ We love our kids, we love our parents, we love our school, and most of us teachers are upset at the administration, the central office and Alberta Ed.”

Upset at who now? One of the problems in trying to fix a problem with Alberta schools is identifying someone to take responsibility. Many a citizen had a merry runaround trying to find out who to blame for a brutal round of Edmonton school closures three years ago, and in the end settled on the elected trustees.

Valgardson, a teacher with 34 years experience, says the higher ups are always trying out “new crap that doesn’t work.” He says he has no idea where the “No Zeros” rule actually came from, and that it’s part of a bigger problem with the school system he’s likewise clueless to pinpoint, but which may have something to do with money.

He’s working on it. One of the gifts of the modern comedian is to point out stupidity and then put that stupidity into context so we can all understand it. The laughter comes from relief.

“There’s humour in this,” Valgardson says. “That’s what I’m trying to find. I have a whole teaching chunk in my act. And when I do teacher’s conventions, the teachers go nuts because I get to say what they’re not allowed to say.”

Things like “I give zeros!” Knocks ‘em dead.

Valgardson, who currently teaches at the small K-12 school in New Norway, Alberta, isn’t the only entertainer going for the laugh here. An Edmonton singer named Matt Day has a popular YouTube video of a heavy-handed song called Everyone Feels Good. He likewise points out the stupidity of the No Zeros issue, at one point singing, “Well, if I was a teacher I’d get fired for this song.”

Valgardson doesn’t fear the axe. He’ll be gone in a couple of weeks, safely collecting his full pension – but then what does he do? He takes a contract to come back half-time next year, just to teach drama. They practically begged him to do it. He also runs an extracurricular comedy improv class for high school students – as a volunteer.

He says, “This is a good outlet for them and I get to give them that little thing that they’re going to use for the rest of their lives – improv. When you have a job interview, you’re going to have to be quick.”