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Should cellphones be allowed in K-12 classrooms?

I retired from teaching eight years ago just when teen cellphone use was really starting to become an issue.

When I taught the endings of Spanish -AR verbs I routinely put on a CD of a lyric-less funky rhythm which matched perfectly with a chant of  “-O, -AS, -A, -AMOS, -ÁIS, -AN.”

While my students were singing the endings to the beat, I’d often do a goofy old-man-style dance around the room. I sometimes would jump up on the heating unit to lead the class in an even louder chant of the endings, swaying my arms back and forth like I was enjoying a band’s ballad at a concert venue.

During a class in one of my last years, three students clandestinely pulled out their phones and recorded me doing the latter. I saw one, to whom I told “stop” and “please delete that.” My assistant principal called me down to his office a bit later in the day with the other two I had missed.

I wasn’t in any trouble, nor were the students. They were good kids and likely were enjoying the lesson and just wanted to save a segment of it for posterity. Still, they were asked to delete the vids.

My (and my asst. principal’s) beef was that there were no shortage of stories about cellphone vids that were edited/sliced and used in an … unflattering manner. (I recall one about a teacher who had been a cheerleader in HS; she did a cheer routine one day in class which a student recorded and later was taken way out of context.) It wasn’t difficult to imagine a clip of me put on YouTube with the caption “Look what my Spanish teacher was doing in class today instead of teaching” … for which I’d have to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to district officials and parents.

MORE: New app rewards students for staying off cell phones in class

When the cellphone era began, our district rule was students could have cellphones with them, but they had to be put away when in class. (As you’d expect, this wasn’t much of a deterrent.) In my final year I got permission to allow kids to use their phones to help with translations for a big project.

Naturally, I had to stay on top of them to make sure the phones were being used for class.

Many of my former colleagues say the cell phone problem has increased by several orders of magnitude since my retirement. Exacerbating the issue is soft-spined administrators refusing to enact consequences for repeated violations. “Just write ’em up!” administrators say, but when teachers do just that nothing happens.

Enter Mitchell Rutherford, a biology teacher in Arizona. He just quit teaching after 11 years due to cellphone craziness:

Something shifted to kind of pull people more deeply into [cellphone use]. It’s kind of like the frog in the boiling water. I guess it’s always been increasing as an issue. And then finally, I was like: Oh, we’re boiling now. …

Teachers everywhere recognize that this is a massive problem that’s way bigger than our school, way bigger than school policies and small-scale enforcement. Our school has policies, our district has policies, but I think the approach to addressing cellphone use has to come from all angles, including at a much higher level—by holding tech companies accountable for making the most addictive apps and products that the world has ever seen, intentionally.

I’m not certain “holding tech companies accountable” is a workable proposal. How do you determine what is “most addictive”? Aren’t products supposed to appeal to consumers? Perhaps an age restriction on cell phone purchases/use (like tobacco products) could limit kids’ access (I wouldn’t count on it), but in the meantime what’s needed is schools being totally committed to a consistent cellphone policy.

(I wouldn’t much count on this either as teachers and administrators have more pressing concerns with which to deal — and they, especially admins, don’t even deal with those adequately.)

In his conclusion, Rutherford zeroes in on what’s probably the best solution: “As my daughter grows up, I’ll be the strictest dad ever. I will not put a phone or iPad in her visual field for years. My plan is to never have my infant daughter see me on my phone, ever.”

Would that more parents follow his example.

What do you think? Should students have cellphones in class? Let us know in the comments.

MORE: More students would give up having children, eating meat than cellphones to help climate: poll

IMAGE: ChristianWiediger/Unsplash; Dave Huber

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 20 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.