"Zero Ignorance vs. Zero Tolerance" by Marc A. Gonzalez
I may just be a Theatre teacher, but I’ve been privy to various classroom management systems in my now-three years of classroom teaching. Notice I wrote, classroom management, not school-wide management or district-wide standards or state-wide policies or other ways to govern our student body. In the classroom, I have been transitioning away from the oft-used “Zero Tolerance” protocols which so many of my former teachers (most of whom I do appreciate for putting up with me in my teenage years) used when I was their student. Zero Tolerance, a protocol I noticed was taught by my credential program; a protocol I’ve seen and heard used, a lot. However, after this pandemic swept us, BLM marches took place, and boys could no longer “just be boys,” I realized something: Zero Tolerance is an outdated system.
This is not to say Zero Tolerance isn’t effective, if “effective” means you have removed the immediate problem; if “effective” means “Whelp! Looks like it’s somebody else’s problem!” as you trudge on teaching the lesson you simply, absolutely, without any-room-for-compromise must teach entirely in that one period; if “effective” means that once the student is out of sight they are, in fact, out of mind. If any of those definitions apply to you, then you are welcome to stop reading now because, well, you’re going to have zero tolerance for the rest of this essay.
Allow me to advocate for a system of Zero Ignorance. In fact, I am championing it! I have found a tremendous amount of success in my classroom by managing my beloved students–yes, even the students who aren’t so beloved–with Zero Ignorance in mind. You see, with all our students have witnessed in just these past few years, like knees being taken, bodies marching, and bullets flying, they know what is tolerated and what is not. As Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul recently stated, “The world keeps handing us our curriculum.” We as teachers have our standards lived out in real-world examples, and our students are watching, tweeting, “liking,” and TikTok-ing all about them.
We have systems in place which indicate and communicate, almost too clearly, the consequences of actions. Students know that if they break dress code they will be sent to detention or sent home. Students know if they are caught fighting, smoking, or intoxicated while at school they will be suspended; if the same happens outside of school, then they will probably be arrested. Zero Tolerance has lost its nuance, lost its shock value, lost its impact. But guess what surprises students: being shown that they do know better; now that’s shocking! You do know that students know stuff, right? It’s not just the teacher. Anyways, students know what tolerance and zero tolerance are, meaning they are not ignorant of consequences. They’re punished and rewarded plenty to know. Zero Tolerance assumes the worst because it is an after-the-fact response while Zero Ignorance is a proactive intention. Zero Ignorance is a call to prevention rather than relying on detention and suspension as sources of consequential motivation.
Encouraging our students that they are experts in their own experience (“Pre-existing Knowledge,” for my pedagogical nerds out there) helps expand their potential (Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development”). And that is our job, as teachers, right? To get them where we need them to be. To bridge the gap of their current knowledge to what the standards say they absolutely, without any-room-for-compromise must know? If teaching is an art, then where does the art lie when Zero Tolerance is the management system? It doesn’t take training to kick someone out of class. It does, however, take some creative planning to talk with a student about a choice they made. Last I checked, the common core standard doesn’t list the Detention room as a standard needing to be data-proven or knowledge-demonstrated-of.
Anecdote: A Unit I brought back from Quarantine 2020 is my Stage Craft unit. Set, Costume, Lighting, and Sound designs. I figured it would be a fun, creative unit for students to learn what I needed them to while connecting it to what they already know, which is themselves. Always. Students are always experts in their own experience. Anyways, for the Sound Design section, we talked about music and sound effects which, when grouped together, make up the soundtrack of the student's day, which is what I asked them: "What does the soundtrack of your day sound like?" Students looked with a bit of glazed-over eyes and regret of logging on, but they eventually came around. Before the end of first period (I have four periods of 30+ Theatre 1 students) they could not stop talking about Lil’ Peep, Lil' Baby, Bon Jovi, Elvis, Taylor Swift (okay, that last one’s for me. I love Taylor. My students know this about me. They accept me and let me play her ad nauseam. It’s my classroom!!). They opened up about what sounds they wake up to: little brother crying, coffee being made, alarm clock. Before I knew it, these students were showing their lack of ignorance of sound design even though most had never even thought about how music and sound effects play a constant role in their lives. And then how those same concepts play a role in musicals and plays. They got it. No ignorance in my room. They are experts, and eager to learn more.
Zero Ignorance leaves no room for “kids will be kids” or the ever-favored shoulder-shrug “I dunno.” Zero Ignorance takes the excuses out of the equation and gives ownership to the student. If the student is learning in a classroom of Zero Ignorance, then they are knowledgeable, aware, and, best of all, using their very experiences to own their education and help educate their fellow students. Empathy happens when one learns about another, not when one walks to detention or is at home playing the same video games during the same three-day suspension. Exposure to other stories, other people are what make the homework and exams and standards mean something. Detention without follow-up discussion is an empty sentence. The "why" is the key, and teachers: yes we lead this but it’s not all on us to bear. The next time a student responds with a shoulder-shrug “I dunno,” respond with a “sure you do. This is about your life. Tell us.” Then wait, smile, and let their assumption of ignorance melt away as they give you, maybe not a common core, A+, superstar response, but a response that is grounded in their experience. They’ve given you an open path, now you build the bridge, and they walk across it with growing confidence, and you give meaningful feedback, and guess what? You were tolerant of them trying. And that’s the art. You’ve done it. They’ve done it. On to second period.
Kurt, D. S. (2020, August 18). Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development . Educational Technology . https://educationaltechnology.net/vygotskys-zone-of-proximal-development-and-scaffolding/.
Sung, K. (Host). (2021, May, 11). Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul: Using ‘Stamped (For Kids) to Talk About Race’ [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from KQED, Mindshift, Apple Podcasts.