The Last Frontier

By Jennifer Chauhan — September 01, 1993 8 min read


After the broadcast, the class began a discussion on whether a local Taco Bell franchise in nearby Billings, the state’s largest city, would need a machine with that kind of production capacity. Some calculated that it would, others that it wouldn’t. Finally, one student came up with an idea to resolve the debate once and for all. “Hey,” the child said, “let’s call Taco Bell.”

After thumbing through the phone book, a student picked up the telephone in the back corner of the classroom and gave the manager of the local franchise a call. The students learned that the restaurant didn’t yet need the high-velocity taco machine—and didn’t expect to for at least five years.

Thanks to a little ingenuity and the common telephone, Jaeger and her students had the answer to their question. She didn’t have to leave her students’ guessing or assign someone to research it after school.

Jaeger and her students were lucky; they had quick and easy access to a telephone. Most of the nation’s students and teachers, however, aren’t so fortunate.

At a time when phones are moving off the wall and into pockets, and education reformers openly talk about telecommunications linking schools electronically to the “information superhighway,” most teachers still have to trek to the office, teachers’ lounge, or nearest pay phone to make a professional or personal call.

Traditional thinking, says educational technology expert Jim Mecklenburger, goes something like this: Teachers have survived without telephones in their classrooms for so long, so why bother now? “A lot of folks never went to schools with phones and therefore don’t believe teachers or kids need them,” says Mecklenburger, editor and publisher of Inventing Tomorrow’s Schools.

Until recently, there have been very little national data available on telephones in the classroom. But a new survey paid for and released this summer by the National Education Association found that only 12 percent of teachers have telephones in their classrooms. A study conducted last year by the Connecticut affiliate of the NEA found that only 4 percent of public school principals in that state reported having phones in all their classrooms; 65 percent said none of their classrooms had phones for outside use.

Those who argue that phones don’t belong in the classroom offer several reasons for their thinking: the expense of installation and monthly bills is a major one, as is the disruption factor. Gary Watts, senior director at the NEA’s National Center for Innovation, believes districts are afraid of putting phones in the classroom “not because they won’t be used but because they will be used.”

For Watts, the question centers on how teachers approach learning. Those who believe students learn best from lectures, textbooks, and work sheets will not see the value of a telephone in the classroom, he says. But teachers who think students should be given some responsibility for their learning and the opportunity to follow their interests beyond the walls of the school will find a telephone indispensable.

And then there is the issue of professional autonomy. “The idea that in 1993 the professional staff in schools have to stand in line at a pay phone to make calls is ridiculous,” Watts says.

Telephones came to Lockwood Middle School after a committee of local educators, studying ways technology could improve learning, concluded no classroom should be without one. The goal, according to teacher Leah McCracken, a 23-year veteran and coordinator of Lockwood’s instructional technology, was to empower students and educators. Telephones, she says, give education “a whole different flavor.”

“There is an immediate contact with the outside world,” McCracken says. “We’re a school with walls but without walls. It allows us to reach a parent, a scientist, to see if a book is available at a local library.”

Principal Tom Wilson of Eagan (Minn.) High School says before his teachers got outside phone lines, they used to grumble, “You have a phone, your secretary has a phone, why can’t I have a phone?” In the grand scheme of things, he says, phones may seem like a small thing, but they have made a big difference to his teachers. For one thing, he notes, they feel empowered. “It gives them a sense of feeling valued and trusted,” he says.

For many teachers, getting a telephone allays the sense of isolation they feel on the job. “Once we’re in the classroom, we have no access to the outside world,” says Linda Albertson, a French teacher at Eagan High School. “They could be bombing Des Moines, and we wouldn’t know it. Just having the phone takes away that feeling.”

This link to the “real world,” teachers say, can stimulate students’ interest in learning. A question comes up—as it did in Jaeger’s class—and kids are able to discuss it, then turn to an immediate source for information. Mark Whittier, senior manager for marketing development at Northern Telecom Inc., a telecommunications firm that markets to schools, tells how a math teacher in Palm Beach, Fla., used her classroom phone to teach a lesson on area. She had her students call local pizza parlors to find out the price and size of their pizzas. The students used the data to figure the cost per square inch of pizza. When they located the most economical pizza, they ordered it. “Connecting mathematics concepts to real life,” says Whittier, “is just so valuable.”

But perhaps the most important advantage of having a phone in the classroom is that it notably increases communication between parents and teachers. This advantage isn’t lost on teachers who do not have phones. More than 70 percent of the teachers responding to the NEA poll said having a classroom phone would improve communication between the home and the school. “Every time the community and parents get involved in education, things improve,” says Whittier. “One way parents can get closer is to talk to teachers. Phones are how they can get to them.”

Lockwood’s Jaeger concurs. “It’s a very nonthreatening [way] for parents to get involved,” she says. “I am able to express with parents right then and there the positive things [about their children] and the things I’m concerned about.” There are other little benefits, as well, Jaeger says. For example, one of her students has asthma, and it calms the girl to call home when she gets scared.

Many teachers with classroom phones have access to voice mail, a feature that can enhance the link between home and school. Parents can phone and leave personal messages for teachers, who then return the call at their convenience. Voice mail also lets teachers leave recorded messages for parents. A parent might call, for example, and hear the teacher describe the day’s lesson, the homework assigned, and any upcoming special events, such as a PTA meeting or a class recital. According to Jerold Bauch, director of the Betty Phillips Center for Parenthood Education at Vanderbilt University, studies show that approximately half of the parents who have access to this kind of system call every day.

Of course, not everyone agrees that the classroom is the place for a telephone. Some administrators, for example, believe that a ringing phone disrupts learning and that giving students easy access to phones invites misuse.

Teachers agree that a phone can interrupt a lesson or break students’ train of thought, but most say the benefits more than compensate for the drawbacks. “The kids have become used to it,” says McCracken of Lockwood. “It’s like any other tool; if it rings, they pick it up and go about their business.” In Jaeger’s class, every student gets a turn being the designated phone monitor. This person sits closest to the phone and is the only one permitted to answer it.

There are other options for teachers who simply don’t want their lessons to be interrupted. As Whittier points out, any modern telephone system can be restricted. For example, a phone can be set up with a flashing light instead of a ring. Some systems have do-not-disturb features. Or a teacher can simply program an answering machine or voice mail system to take a message.

As far as misuse goes, Jaeger says: “I don’t feel it’s being abused because I don’t allow it to be.” In most schools with classroom phones, students are not able to make long-distance calls because they don’t have access to the necessary authorization codes.

Cost is a harder issue to get around. Installation and system charges can be expensive, and then there are the monthly user fees. According to technology expert Mecklenburger, schools tend to prefer services they can buy for a fixed, predictable amount of money. They’d rather pay a fixed $1,000 annual fee than a volatile $100 to $200 a month.

“If you walk into school buildings and ask principals if they have money to buy a phone,” says Whittier of Northern Telecom, “they’ll laugh you out of the room. What they don’t realize is they do. It’s a matter of priorities.”

Although money is tight in districts across the nation, there are indications that priorities are shifting. Representatives of telecommunications firms say they are beginning to target the school market for the first time. Reformers and educators talk increasingly of the need to link classrooms electronically with data banks, experts, and other resources outside the school; telephone lines are the missing link if computer modems and fax machines are going to be a part of that equation. And teachers at all levels are working to give their students authentic learning experiences, working to connect their lessons to the “real world.”

This makes Gary Watts of the NEA optimistic about the future of phones in the classroom. “More and more, schools are restructuring, and this is creating a growing awareness that we need to get outside,” he says. “Phone lines provide that access.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as The Last Frontier