Student Apathy Is a Big Classroom Challenge, Teachers Say. Cellphones Aren’t Helping

By Madeline Will — April 04, 2024 6 min read
Photo of distracted high school students in class.
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The stakes are high: Students have a lot of academic ground to make up following the pandemic. Yet they’re not fully engaged in the classroom, teachers report in a new national survey.

Nearly half of teachers—and 58 percent of high school teachers—say that their students showing little to no interest in learning is a major problem in their classroom. And 72 percent of high school teachers and a third of middle school teachers say that students being distracted by cellphones is a major problem.

Those results are from a new survey by the Pew Research Center of more than 2,500 public school teachers, which was conducted from Oct. 17 to Nov. 14. (The teachers surveyed are members of the RAND Corp.'s nationally representative American Teacher Panel.) The survey covers a wide breadth of topics, including teachers’ job satisfaction, workload, and challenges in the classroom.

About half of the teachers who responded to the survey gave low marks to both the academic performance and behavior of students at their school. Teachers from high-poverty schools are much more likely to hold these negative views than their peers at low-poverty schools.

When teachers were asked about the problems affecting students at their schools, poverty, chronic absenteeism (generally defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason), and anxiety and depression topped the list. More than a third of middle school teachers also cited bullying.

And inside the classroom, distractions reign.

Natoria Kennell-Foster, a 7th grade English/language arts teacher in Mississippi, said she’s still seeing the lingering effects of school shutdowns and remote learning in her classroom this year.

Some of her students are “really hungry to learn,” she said. “They want all the things I have to give.”

Others, however, are still not used to the structure of the school day and have been reluctant to engage in class, she said: “Pulling them in can be difficult.”

Kennell-Foster said she’s found some success by pairing her eager students with the disengaged ones. And she’s optimistic that some of these problems will dissipate in the next few years.

“The further we’ve been removed from quarantine, each year has gotten a little closer to being normal,” Kennell-Foster said.

Cellphones are an ‘addiction,’ teachers say

While 71 percent of high school teachers say their school or district has policies regarding students’ use of cellphones in the classroom, 60 percent said those policies were difficult to enforce.

Tamika Kimble, an 8th and 9th grade science teacher at Sylvan Hill Junior High School in Sherwood, Arkansas, has a sign posted in her classroom that cellphones are not allowed. Even so, she frequently has to confiscate phones.

“Sometimes I’ll be teaching, and I notice their heads are down—I know they’re on their phones,” Kimble said. “If I’m paid to teach you to learn something, that’s what I need you to do. I’m not going to allow you to play games on your phone. You are there to learn.”

Yet keeping students engaged in instruction and off their phones is a constant battle for many teachers.

“It’s like an addiction,” said Kelly Chevalier, a science teacher at Crown Point High School in northwest Indiana. “They can’t put them away for any amount of time.”

Her students are constantly messaging their friends, scrolling social media, Googling information, listening to music, watching shows, and playing games on their phones.

And when students were told to turn their phones off and put them away for the duration of a standardized exam, they panicked: “The idea of being without their phone for three hours—it literally causes some of them physiological anxiety,” Chevalier said.

Chevalier said she sees phones akin to cars. Parents would never give their children the car keys and tell them to drive without any preparation, she said. Students need to learn how to use phones—and the unfettered access to a world of both information and mis- and disinformation—responsibly, too.

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Close up of elementary or middle school white girl using a mobile phone in the classroom.

Yet parents are not always partners in teachers’ efforts to stem the use of phones in class, teachers say.

Sometimes, Chevalier will tell a student to put away their phone—and they’ll respond that they’re texting their mom, who’s asking them what they want from the store.

Kimble said she’s experienced pushback from parents when she or school leaders have taken students’ phones.

“The parents feel like, ‘This is my phone, I bought it. You have no right to take it,’” Kimble said. “But this is my classroom. I have a right to take it, and I have a right to teach.”

The Pew survey found that 79 percent of teachers say parents do too little when it comes to holding their children accountable if they misbehave in school. Sixty-three percent of all teachers—and three-fourths of high school teachers—say parents do too little to ensure their children’s attendance.

“I think one striking finding [from the survey] is that while teachers navigate through all these challenges, they just don’t feel like they’re getting the support or reinforcement they need from parents,” said Luona Lin, a research associate at Pew Research Center.

Most teachers—65 percent—do say that parents show appreciation for their efforts at least sometimes, with about a quarter saying it happens frequently.

Even so, 40 percent of teachers say that parents at least sometimes communicate with them in a disrespectful way.

Teachers are less satisfied with their jobs than other workers

Only a third of teachers say they’re “extremely” or “very” satisfied with their job overall, compared to about half of all U.S. workers. EdWeek’s The State of Teaching survey, released last month, found similar themes of low morale, an ambivalence toward recommending their profession to loved ones, and a heavy workload.

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Calendar posted on a bulletin board with sticky notes displaying emojis which become increasingly despondent as the month progresses
Vanessa Solis/Education Week vis Canva

Indeed, the Pew survey found that more than 8 in 10 teachers said there’s not enough time in the day to get all their work done—mostly because they simply have too much work to do, respondents said, but also because they have other responsibilities, like hallway or lunch duty, that cut into their core work.

A strong majority of teachers said their job is often stressful (77 percent) or overwhelming (68 percent). Smaller majorities said their job is often fulfilling (56 percent) or enjoyable (53 percent).

Female teachers are more likely than male teachers to say their job is frequently stressful or overwhelming. Similarly, female teachers are more likely to say that work-life balance is difficult for them to achieve.

Lin pointed to prior Pew research that shows that female workers overall are more likely than male workers to say their job is stressful and overwhelming all or most of the time. That’s perhaps in part because research shows women in opposite-sex marriages typically take on a heavier load at home with household chores and caregiving responsibilities.

The Pew survey also found that 82 percent of teachers say that the overall state of public K-12 education has gotten worse in the last five years, with large shares pointing to the current political climate, the lasting effects of the pandemic, and changes in the availability of funding and resources.

About half of teachers expect the state of education to be worse five years from now.

Meanwhile, Pew separately surveyed about 5,000 U.S. adults in November and found that about half say the public K-12 education system is going in the wrong direction. Just 16 percent say it’s going in the right direction; the rest aren’t sure.

Large shares of people who held a negative view of the education system pointed to the following reasons: schools are not spending enough time on core academic subjects; teachers are bringing their personal political and social views into the classroom; and schools don’t have the funding and resources they need.

Lin highlighted the fact that while both teachers and the general public hold a largely negative view of education, their reasons for doing so are mostly different.

“All these issues that teachers are facing in the classroom ... they’re not known to the general public,” she said. “We definitely hope that our report sparks some discussion.”


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