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Cellphone stalemates: How should schools deal with them?

In the wake of the South Carolina incident, local high school teacher Marcus Patton discusses cellphones in class and the challenges they present. This appeared on his terrific blog.

As we've discussed, cellphones seem a no-win for schools. Nervous parents want their kids to have them in this world of lockdowns and active shooter drills. And a surprising number of parents now expect to be able to text their kids at school at 1 p.m. and get a response.

I especially like Patton's comments about high school students, which I noted in bold. He addresses an important point about their ability to see life beyond high school, given our attempts now to prod freshmen into choosing career paths.

Also, I often hear experts say teachers must engage every student, that "we can't afford to lose one student." But while teachers attempt to engage those kids who keep checking their phones, don't they risk losing the attention of the other students in the class?

This is what I wish teachers could tell high school kids: "This is your education, your future. I can't sing and dance up here every minute to keep your attention.  You have to participate. You have to expend some effort and energy on your own education. I can't do it alone."

By Marcus Patton

Many years ago, before I became a teacher, a coworker bemoaned to me that her son had gotten into trouble in school for reading a magazine in class.

“What’s the big deal?” she asked, “It’s just a magazine.”

Even in my pre-educator mindset, I could not let the obvious answer to that question pass. “It’s a big deal because the teacher is trying to educate your son, and not only is he giving up an opportunity to learn, he is showing disrespect to the teacher’s efforts to help him.”

Her reaction was one of surprise that I would stand up for an officious teacher instead of her dear child who wasn’t bothering anyone. She didn’t give any hint that she thought he was missing anything important by burying his nose in a magazine.

I think back to the many times as a teacher that I have called students on their off-task behavior. Typically, students would cry no foul. “But we weren’t doing anything in class, so what’s the difference?” In a patient mode, I would explain that time devoted to working on their own was not time off. Just because I wasn’t engaging them directly didn’t mean they shouldn’t be engaged in their assignment. Class time was for schoolwork.

Only in recent years has the form of off-task behavior shifted from the classics – dozing off, talking, reading or writing something unrelated to the class – to a newer electronic form of distraction. The cellphone.

Cellphones, and especially smartphones, have changed the way we interact with the world. And we seem to love it. They are addictive. Who hasn’t felt a sense of disproportionate panic when a phone has been misplaced? Who hasn’t pulled out a phone at a traffic light only to feel an ill-advised urge to continue texting, continue surfing, when the light turned green?

I did just fine without a cellphone for most of my life, but I bought one when my first son was born 14 years ago. I can feel the pull of cellphone addiction even though I know perfectly well that life is good – and in many ways better – without that electronic tether. My son grew up in a world in which “everyone” had one. He got his last year when he was in eighth grade. My younger son got one this year as a seventh-grader. Both of them know classmates who carried phones in elementary school.

A cellphone is a natural place of refuge for a bored kid.

Last week, I was in a meeting for 9th and 10th graders and their parents on the topic of preparing for college. The facilitator asked, what is the biggest challenge among the steps a student needs to take to get ready for life after high school?

I said, “The hardest thing for 9th graders to do is to imagine that there is life after high school. I taught 11th graders for years, and they were just starting to grasp that reality. Until that switch is flipped inside of them, parents are going to have to carry most of the weight.”

The father sitting across from me nodded and said, “That’s true. We went to visit a college campus and my son wouldn’t even get out of the car.”

Meanwhile his son, knowing that all eyes in the room were on him, continued to attend to his cellphone. I watched him. He was interacting exclusively with the phone for almost the entire remaining hour of the meeting.

I thought about the conversation years ago with my former co-worker. In her story the teacher had snatched the magazine out of her son’s hands. You can’t do that with cellphones. They are too expensive and liability issues make it unfeasible.

I thought about the recent case in South Carolina in which a uniformed officer dragged a student forcefully from her chair after she refused to put away her phone.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen commented on the case to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Why is an officer called to the classroom when a kid doesn’t give up their cellphone? To me, that’s not an officer issue. It’s a classroom management issue. … It’s about do we have relationships with kids.”

I agree that conflicts in classroom management are better resolved when teachers have good relationships with their students. But I wonder if sometimes, students feel a stronger relationship with their phones than they do with any of the authority figures in their lives.

How would you have handled the situation if you were a teacher and a student in your class refused to put away his or her phone?

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.