Schools and Cell Phones: This Story Won’t End Where you Think!
I confess that as a teacher I had a difficult time sweating the small stuff. While my colleagues could spot gum in the mouth of a child in someone else’s classroom, that same child could be chewing like a cow on cud right in front of me and I wouldn’t notice. Kids that liked to snack while they worked loved me, and I was fine with notes or side conversation as long as it wasn’t disruptive and work was getting done. Life, in my opinion, was far too short to worry about behaviors that caused no great harm and had little bearing on my prime directive – teaching.
So when I moved up to the high school, I was similarly disinterested in stomping out the use of cell phones. It wasn’t an issue in my classroom, I’ll admit. My students were making up missed credits via a series of computer modules designed to remediate and/or allow students who didn’t fit in traditional classrooms to accelerate towards graduation. Instruction was one on one. A ringing phone quickly attended to or the occasional texting didn’t bother me. Again, as long as work was completed and progress was made, I allowed my students a certain amount of freedom in delegating their time.
But I was not the norm. Many of my colleagues had reactions that ranged from mildly annoyed to a near stroke over the use of cell phones in our building. I could see their point. Cell phones multiplied like tribbles. What began as a safety device that financially well-heeled parents attached to their kids like bells on kittens soon morphed into a must have status symbol and escalated into a ubiquitous and seemingly all-consuming need of kids to be constantly in contact with someone. Anyone.
Phones rang during lectures and kids texted when they needed to be paying attention. Phones were employed for the purpose of cheating on tests; two-thirds of all high school students cheat using their phones in some way, and, of course, kids simply avoid work when they have a cell handy to play with.
Probably the most troubling aspect of the cell is the idea that parents and childrenhave developed about their need to be in touch with each other all day long. When I was sixteen, I can recall going the entire day without needing to verify my continued well-being to my parents. I spent entire evenings and even went overnight without contacting my friends. The damage to my psyche was minimal but, to be fair, expectations and needs have changed. We live in an era of extreme social interaction and that genie is not getting back in her bottle – ever.
Cell phones were prohibited in my district at first; in fact 69% of high schools currently have some sort of prohibition or ban, but parents complained until the administration backed down and allowed students to carry them as long as they were off during the day. Kids could use their phones before or after school only. It wasn’t about distraction then, really. Cell phones invited theft and administrators hated dealing with stolen property. Teachers and principals are not police and don’t relish being forced into the role. Cell phones, at least in one middle school I worked in, were also used for illegal activities like selling illegal drugs, and drug use, though declining, is still a problem in our schools.
Distraction came though as phones multiplied and gained new and more attractive features. By the time I was a high school teacher, most kids had phones and used them to the point that I feared for their thumbs.
Cracking down on phone use felt like patrolling for gum chewers to me. Why not simply teach the students etiquette? I asked. We are teachers after all, doesn’t this fall under our jurisdiction?
I never got an answer nor did the fruitless war on cell phones end while I was still in the classroom. My students were apprised of my feelings and rules and we lived outside the law during my tenure.
However, public schools have recently begun to change their views on cell phone use by students. Some are questioning whether or not these phones – which are fast approaching mini-computer status – shouldn’t be used to aid the learning process. There are schools where teachers are being allowed to make use of the multi-functional abilities of today’s cell phones in conjunction with other social media.
To me it seems a no-brainer that schools have to come up with a way to incorporate technologies, and that means cell phones too, into the curriculum. With all the talk about preparing students for real world employment or higher education, social media and cell phones have to be addressed. And given that adults are hardly the best examples of proper cell phone use (I knew teachers who would have sooner cut off a limb than disconnect themselves from their phones), it is hypocritical to ban cell phones instead of simply coming up with ways to make their existences work for, rather than against, the educational process.
But that’s just my opinion. What do you think about school cell phone bans? What is necessary? What works? What doesn’t? What could be done instead?