Student cellphone usage has become a major issue of concern for schools, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic.
This two-part series will share the thoughts and experiences of several teachers in the classroom.
This year, our school faculty committed to enforce a rule that no cellphones could be used in the classroom, except with teacher permission (for example, if the class was playing an online game). Students were asked to keep phones in their backpacks and could use them between classes and during lunch.
Though it hasn’t solved all phone problems, it’s made all the difference in the world! I would suggest the problem—at least for me—is 10 percent to 20 percent of what it was last year. However, I also recognize that not all classes are the same, and that some may very well offer bigger challenges than mine.
I periodically remind students of the “deal” we have: “I work very hard to create engaging lessons, you get to work with your friends (Note: we do a lot of group work where students can choose their group mates), and I’m supportive of you in many ways. In return, I just ask that you try your best and don’t put me in the position of having to police phones.”
That seems to help!
‘A Middle Ground’
As a middle school teacher, I find that I am more conflicted about cellphones than anything else I face in my day-to-day life as a teacher. On the one hand, they are the bane of my existence, constantly vying for attention. How can I ever compete with the serotonin hit that accompanies “likes”? The amount of information within my students’ reach is hard to contend with, making me especially crazy when they ignore their phones’ amazing capabilities, instead opting to scroll TikTok endlessly. However, on the other hand, I know that I’d be missing an opportunity to help my students prepare for their future if I simply make them lock them in their locker. It isn’t as if cellphones are going to go away.
My solution has been a middle ground, and for the most part, it has worked. I have a charging station at the front of my classroom for phones, Airpods, and Chromebooks. Students really appreciate that I understand the need for charging! Students are not allowed to have their phones out in class until the last three minutes. Then, I let them “go on their phones.” My sell to them is simple: I need 40 minutes of your time, with undivided attention. If you give me 40, I can give you the final three. Students are busy, have crazy schedules, and I text my own kiddos a few times a day. I know that parents feel better, given the incidences of school violence and the mental health crisis, if they can touch base with their children throughout the day. I inform parents of my policy, and they are supportive.
Of course with every plan, there are the rule breakers. Students and families know that there’s a simple 1-2-3 list of consequences. The consequences aren’t on a daily basis but over the course of each quarter. I explain that I don’t have the time or inclination to talk about phones all the time. So, the first time I see a phone, I give the student a reminder. The second time, they have to call their parents (from the hallway, with me standing right there) and tell them they were on their phone. The third time, the phone goes to the office where their parents will have to pick it up (that’s the school rule, not mine). After these three consequences, they are no longer allowed to have their phones in my room until the next quarter.
It isn’t a perfect plan, but it is helping me help them to learn a little more self-control and discipline regarding their phone usage. So far, it has been very effective, and I plan to continue using it.
Phones Can Be ‘Barriers’ or ‘Tools’
Erinn Leone is a social science teacher and student advocate at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif.:
Cellphones are here to stay. As a society, we have constructed a world in which cellphones are an intimate part of our daily lives. Anywhere you look in today’s society, you will find a cellphone. From baby strollers to behind the wheel of moving vehicles, phones are everywhere … including in our classrooms.
Cellphones are a barrier, a distraction that we as a society have invited into our lives. In classrooms, teachers compete with cellphones for the attention of our students. I like to think I’m a pretty engaging and dynamic educator, but if it’s between me and a cellphone, a cellphone will always be more entertaining. I try not to take it personally when phones disrupt.
Oftentimes, our initial reaction is to ban phones and punish their use in classrooms. Our intentions are pure. We want to eliminate something that could become a barrier to our students being successful in our classrooms. Phones can indeed be a barrier, but phones can also be a tool.
When students leave high school, there will be no phone bans. Students will continue to have unlimited access to their devices wherever they go. They will be expected to discern when it is appropriate to use their phones or silence them.
As a high school teacher, this is the reality that I want to prepare my students for. In the classroom, I aim to help students realize when their phone is becoming a distraction and when/how it can and should be used as a resource or tool.
When I see a cellphone out in my classroom, I ask the student, “Is this [their phone] an emergency, a tool, or a distraction right now.” This question gives the student an opportunity to self-reflect. Sometimes, it is an emergency. Often, parents are utilizing their own tools (cellphones) to communicate with their children during the school day. Occasionally it is a tool; a student may be looking up a definition or a translation.
More often, the student will recognize that they are being pulled away from their learning by a distraction (TikTok, IG, texts, games, etc.). In this case, we both acknowledge the phone as a distraction, and I present the student with three choices: 1. Put the phone in their pocket, 2. Put their phone in their backpack, or 3. Keep their phone on my desk for the remainder of the period to help them minimize the distraction. None of the options is punitive and they allow the student to choose a solution that would help them refocus and stay engaged in the learning.
Like with anything else, students will need continued support, redirection, and praise. If the distraction persists, I intervene by keeping the phone at my desk for the duration of the class period to help the student refocus.
After class, before returning the phone, I ask the student to briefly reflect on how their learning or engagement was different without the phone as a distraction. I acknowledge and praise their ability to tune out the distraction (even if it required teacher intervention). Finally, I remind them that my desk is always a safe space for phones if they don’t feel like they are ready to handle the temptation of having the phone in their pocket or backpack yet.
None of this is punitive. The goal is to help the student discern when and how they should use their devices, increase their mindfulness about when and why they are reaching for their devices, and practice making choices that support their development.
Finally, I provide opportunities for students to use their phones as tools in the classroom (looking up definitions, check-in surveys, creating videos, Kahoot, etc.). Phones are a part of our society, and unless we decide to eliminate phones from society as a whole, we will not be able to eliminate them from our classrooms. We can, however, teach students how to be more mindful about their cellphone use and encourage positive decisionmaking around cellphone use so that students are prepared to navigate life after school with their devices in hand (or in pocket).
Marie Moreno, Ed.D., is an educator and administrator with over 20 years of experience specializing in newcomer and second-language acquisition. She is passionate about refugee and immigrant education, focusing on social and emotional needs and newcomer programming:
As a school principal, I often had to deal with students who were disruptive in the classroom because of cellphones. Phones are one distraction that, if handled with dignity and respect, can offer long-term solutions that is a win-win for both student and teachers.
I recall handling student disruptions because it becomes a power struggle. To help you bring this into context, I provided this real scenario during my tenure as a principal:
Teacher: “Bobby! You know the rules. No phones. Give me that phone now. It’s no longer yours. It’s mine.”
Bobby: “Hell no! It’s my phone. I paid for it.”
Teacher: “The rule is NO PHONES! Give it to me now; otherwise, you will serve time in detention or worse.”
Bobby: “No! You’re not taking my phone, EVER!”
Teacher: “YES I am, I’m in charge. You don’t have a choice in this. Either you give me the phone now, or I’m calling the officer/principal right now.”
Bobby: “F-That!” [He hands over the phone to the teacher]
Teacher: “You just earned yourself a day in detention for that language, and I will call your parents. Keep it up, and I will tell the principal to suspend you too!”
Bobby: “What the F***?! I just gave you my G** D*** phone like you told me to!”
Teacher: “OK, now I’m calling the principal to have you removed from my classroom.”
This escalation happens so often in classrooms. You can see this situation twofold. The teacher ultimately won the fight because the student was removed from the classroom, yet the student missed classroom instruction. On the other hand, the student may not have wanted to do the work in the first place, so the student ultimately “got what he wanted”—not to complete the assignment. Look at the same scenario with a different approach.
Teacher: “Hey, Bobby, you’re texting, and the rule is not phones. Everything OK?”
Bobby: “Yeah, I’m just talkin’ to my peeps.”
Teacher: “I’m glad you have friends, Bobby. That’s good. But the rule I have to enforce is no phones, and I know that’s really hard to stick to all day long at school, isn’t it?”
Bobby: “Dude, it’s totally impossible!”
Teacher: “I know. How about this . . . how about you give me your phone to hold on to for the rest of the day/class? I’ll keep it safe and return it to you when the bell rings at the end of the day/class period. That way, you don’t get in trouble and can finish your work in my class. You will get your phone back to continue connecting with your peeps when you finish (or end of the day).”
Teacher: “Yes, I know. It’s hard. You have a pass code lock on it so no one can read your private information.”
Bobby: “OK [teacher], but you promise I get it back at the end of the period/day, right? I don’t have to pay the fine, correct?” He hands over the phone to the teacher.
Teacher: “Absolutely, I appreciate you trusting me and letting me support you.”
‘Real’ power is how the teacher influences the students to get the job done ultimately. I worked with teachers to instill expectations that will keep students in class while de-escalating situations regarding cellphones.
First, set clear expectations on your cellphone policy. Collect all cellphones at the door and let students know they will be returned at the end of the period. Teachers can also tell students to put cellphones away, or they will be collected during class.
Second, create positive relationships and listen to your students. If students say something like, “My mom is going to text me,” acknowledge and say, “OK, I will allow you to check after you complete some of your work.”
Finally, greet students at the door and either collect phones then or remind them of the cellphone expectations. If you are consistent and keep your word, they will rise to the expectation set by the teacher.
Thanks to Amber, Erinn, and Marie for contributing their thoughts!
Today’s post responded to this question:
How do you handle student cellphones in class?
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at email@example.com. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.
The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.