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How to Manage Cell Phones in the Classroom

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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illustration of a smartphone on a hotpad

When I ask the students why they are so attached to their devices with the small (some aren't so small) screens, I invariably get the response, "It's my life."

I just don't get it and probably never will, but here is my attempt at understanding. After careful observation, I have determined that the cell phones are analogous to what happened when the Walkman first appeared on the scene for the older generation. A Walkman was a portable cassette player that sometimes came with a radio.

Students could conveniently take their music with them and also conveniently tune out any undesirable noise. Within this cocoon of music, students feel safe and protected. "I study better with my music" is a frequent response to "Please take the earbuds out." It doesn't matter how much research you share about the brain not being able to focus on more than one thing at a time, as soon as you turn your back, the earbuds will be back in.

They even have hoodies with built-in earbuds instead of drawstrings so that the students can wall themselves off with little chance of detection. They have thousands of songs on their playlist. It seems like an appendage to their bodies (as with many adults, as well).

The Texting Frenzy

Are you tired of seeing students text each other while sitting side by side? Lol. Or how about the sly student who is writing with pen at his desk while texting with the other hand under the desk? Are you frustrated by the text language and spelling that creeps into student assignments? Who are they texting? Is it other students that should be paying attention in class? I was shocked when I looked at my son's texting count -- over five thousand in one month! That's roughly one text for every three minutes he was awake. For some students that is a low number.

Accepting Reality

Phones at school are inevitable. Should we embrace the "bring your own technology" (BYOT) model or the extreme "you take it out and I take it away!" policy? How do you monitor and keep 30 phones busy doing productive work? What do you do with the few kids that do not have phones? On the other hand, is keeping a phoneless classroom worth the hassle and effort of being the phone ogre? Can you have both? No easy answer for this is found anywhere in blogosphere.

Whatever you decide, you cannot turn a blind eye to tackling this challenge -- school-wide and in the classroom. Perhaps the best thing you could do for yourself this summer is craft your classroom cell phone policy.

If you choose BYOT, students have to understand beforehand that using their phone has an educational purpose and what the consequences are for straying from that purpose. Then you have to enforce it, which means constant surveillance as you walk around, looking at every phone or tablet.

Deciding on a Cell Phone Policy

Establishing a no cell phone zone in your classroom requires a few things. First off, you need support from your administration, because you will possibly be sending repeat offenders to the office. You need also pervasive reminders of your policy on the classroom walls and in your lesson-framing pep talks. Perhaps the most important element is minimal downtime in your learning activities, because the temptation to sneak a look is just too strong.

While many schools still have strict phone policies, some schools ignore the policies in place and follow don't ask, don't tell. As long as a student is not causing problems, they can use their phones as much as they want outside of class, and each teacher has to determine how much phone use goes on in class. Cell phones in the classroom can be a significant discipline problem and classroom management struggle if clear and explicit guidelines are not established the first day. Every teacher's tolerance for phone usage varies.

But as an administrator, if I walk in and see earbuds and phones out during direct instruction, I see a problem that needs to be fixed. I am curious to hear your thoughts on cell phones in the classroom and the policies at your school. Please share in the comments section below.

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Dominik Maligranda's picture

So i'm not a teacher yet but reading through all the comments is most helpful! I always read about teachers saying there isn't enough time to make changes during the year and so on, so i think allowing phones (with restrictions) is best. Obviously, this can change when I start teaching however it makes sense now. I feel as if i would waste more time policing students than i would teaching in a limited amount of time. Allowing the students to make the judgement calls on their own, knowing if its excessive their phone could be taken, allows for more responsible students.

Ann Dirks's picture

Wow, hot topic! I work for the Department of Defense (DoD) and would like to share my experiences regarding devices in DoD work locations, in meetings and at award/retirement presentations. The DoD has many buildings in which all cell phones (devices) are not allowed into the building due to security considerations. The building where I work authorizes cell phones but there may be meetings that cell phones are prohibited and are either left in an office or locked up outside the meeting room. I have attended some meetings in which employees may have their devices but some of the employees constantly look at their device during the meeting. I personally find that to be intensely rude behavior to the speaker and it implies to me that the employee is not actively listening to the material. There are also quite a few recognition ceremonies that occur where I work--many of which I have acted as the narrator. As the narrator, I always remind attending personnel to silence their devices. I see this as a courtesy to the recipient of the recognition as well as to the personnel attending the event. I would recommend that school systems prepare their students for the work place with the following 2 rules:

1. Remind students to place their devices on silence when they enter the classroom.
2. Have students place their phones out of sight (Back Pack, locked cell phone garage the student has the key)

Teachers should absolutely minimize distractions in the classroom if a student does not follow the device rules. The teacher should continue teaching the class, approach the distracted student and direct him/her to turn off his/her device. The teacher locks the device in the garage and hands the key to the student. The student can retrieve their device at the end of the class. Students who have a history of misusing their phone during class, should automatically lock their device in the garage prior to the start of class. I would recommend sending students out of the classroom only for disruptive behavior.

Lastly, I would encourage teachers to design opportunities into their teaching curricula for students to utilize their devices as our society uses technology in practically everything we do.

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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Ann: Excellent advice. I personal do not allow phone use in my classroom. I am the telephone police and I made a deal with my students that if the phone is out, they give it to me and get it back at the end of class- if they do not cause a scene. Most do not have trouble with this. But you know who does? The kids that give you trouble anyways. For them it was never about learning, it is a contest of wills and they will push you to the limit. My best recourse for those kids is to call home and tell the parents what a distraction the phone is in class. Usually the parent will pull the plug and the problem is fixed.

Ben Johnson
Tyler, Texas

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Melissa Brown's picture

It has been proven that students are not successful in the classroom when "multitasking" aka texting their friends or scrolling through instagram. As a student myself I can relate to this because when I am on my phone I am not listening or comprehending the lecture going on, and then I get home and wonder why I don't understand my homework. I think there are effective ways to incorporate technology into the classroom, but I also think it is beneficial for kids to get a break from their phones whether they think so or not.

JTigrana's picture

Cell phones are a part of life. I find that the more I use e-mail to write, the poorer my grammar becomes. For example, I ignore the rules of punctuation, in a fashion similar to that of the writer, above. While the majority of such a comment may make sense, it concludes with a sentence is somewhat confusing. The pronoun "it" is a pronoun with no antecedent. I'm not sure what the writer means by "passing it with my family." The purpose of grammar is clarity. The purpose of keeping cell phones out of the classroom is to minimize distractions in classes where subject matter is taught.

JTigrana's picture

I could not agree more. Sanctioning cell phones in class is akin to a teacher saying it is fine if students pass notes in class. Of course, some will do it. I used to do it! But it is a bad habit, and students who rely on music for concentration will be at a disadvantage when, in test situations, they will be asked to concentrate without it. In addition, as you point out, constant texting is unprofessional and will lead to poor performance at work in the future.

Fizz's picture

I am a physics instructor at a community college and I am not a technophobe. I tend to think of myself as being on the leading edge (or bleeding edge sometimes) of technology. Wrote many professional computer programs in industry and even worked on manufacturing parts that make cell phones a reality.

However, when it comes to the classroom, based on my experience, I find that keeping cell phones out of use during class (this includes discouraging students from leaving during class to use the cell phone) is very important for student success. Students grades and the class average improved by a whole grade point once I started restricting cell phone use during class.

Looking at individual student test scores, I can see student performance in my course improved from a D to a B or even an A after those students stopped using cell phones during class. I also saw the same students scores go down from A and B to D or F after they got back into the old habit of sneaking out the cell phone during class or walking out of the class room to use it.

My policy used to be that if it is that urgent then the student doesn't need to be in class for that day. So if the student had to walk out of the classroom, he or she were asked to take their belongings with them and they are counted absent for that day, and no points are deducted from their grade since I do not grade on attendance. If a student continued to use the cell phone after two warnings, they were asked to leave class for the day and counted absent. No make-up would be allowed in those cases. So if it were a lab, then they would miss the points for the part of the experiment that they did not finish.

EricS607's picture

I hate what cell phones have done to young people. When I see someone who can't raise their head from their phone I call them a drone or bot. No longer human or aware of anything going on around them. They might as well be in the middle of the desert for all they are concerned. No one or anything around them exists while they are in that moment on the phone. Cell phones do not belong in the classroom. I have no desire to be on my cellphone while I am in front of a classroom teaching and it's because I am present in the moment doing what I am paid to do teach, learn, have a human experience in 3D. Cell phones do not belong in the classroom at all. You work so hard to just to get your lessons together, have everyone on the same page listening. Cell phones are in no way a positive distraction.

EricS607's picture

I agree Ann, but I don't think we should implement cell phones into the education program. We have desktops, and laptops for that. I see a phone as a phone nothing more.

Jaelynne Noble's picture

As someone who is a part of the generation that is so attached to their cell phones, I have experienced and observed the pull that cell phones have on students of today. I am currently a student teacher and have seen one teacher in particular employ an interesting strategy. This teacher created a "cell-phone challenge" in which the students are challenged to hand their phones to their teacher so that she can lock them up during class time. If the students are able to continue the challenge for an entire week, they receive extra credit. While some teachers may be wary to reward students for something that they should already doing on their own, it's hard to motivate the students to put away their phones unless they get something in return. The goal of this challenge is to also get students to realize that they do not need their phones on their person every second of the day, especially if they want to succeed in a classroom.

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