This past week, I watched the first episode of A&E’s Undercover High.
To the uninitiated, the show follows seven young adults who go undercover in an American high school.
One of the things that struck me, among many, was the ubiquity of cell phone use in class.
Cameras showed teachers trying to give instruction while students checked social media, texted, and listened to music.
I felt bad for the teachers, but even more so for the students.
Here they were in the midst of perhaps their best opportunity to begin creating a life of meaning and contribution.
And it was passing them by.
Sadly, the use of cell phones during instructional time is a pervasive problem that is only growing in intensity—and not just in high school.
In the past year, I’ve been inundated with emails from teachers of students as young as sixth grade who are at their wit’s end.
In this particular episode, it became evident that the school’s policy on cell phones in the classroom was that students shouldn’t use them.
Which, of course, means absolutely nothing. It puts teachers in the position of merely discouraging their use, which in this day and age is a near impossible task.
Unless your content and ability to deliver it are more compelling than the highly addictive nature of cell phones, then learning will be profoundly and negatively affected.
So what’s the solution?
Well, the first step is to create a school-wide policy that bans cell phones from even being pulled out in class, whether from a backpack, purse, or pocket.
Merely banning their use doesn’t go far enough and will only lead to arguing and battling with students over what, exactly, this means. The policy must be clear-cut, easy to define, and easy to determine whether it’s been broken.
Thus, if a phone is exposed to the light of day—no matter the circumstance—then the policy has been broken. In this way, it either is or isn’t. There is no gray area or possibility open to interpretation.
As for consequences, I recommend that phones be taken away without students first receiving a warning. Otherwise, they’ll use up their warning every chance they get.
An immediate consequence also sends the message that learning is sacred and anything that interferes with it is a serious offense.
But you can’t just one day begin demanding that students hand over their most cherished possession. They must first understand the policy in full. They must know why it’s in place as well as how their phone will be taken away and when and how it will be returned.
Laying the policy out clearly and completely beforehand, so there are no misunderstandings or opportunities to shift the blame elsewhere, goes a long way toward avoiding defiance, disrespect, and refusal to give up their phone when the policy is enforced.
Therefore, it’s essential to hold a school-wide assembly explaining your policy in detail.
As for specifics, I recommend the following:
- If a student pulls out their phone at any time between the start and end of class—determined by the bell schedule or crossing the threshold into a classroom—then the student loses their phone for the rest of the day.
It doesn’t matter if they put their phone away before the teacher approaches or if they pull it out for a quick second to check the time. If it comes out, regardless of why, the policy has been broken.
Note: This also includes the use of earphones. In other words, if a student has earphones out and visible, whether they’re listening to them or not, it’s the same as having their phone out.
Both the earphones and phone, then, would be taken away.
- The teacher takes possession of the phone by approaching the student and holding open a large ziplock bag. By using a plastic bag rather than taking the phone by hand, it shows respect for the student’s property.
It’s also less confrontational and causes students to be more comfortable handing it over. This also underscores the importance of not lecturing, scolding, or making a show of taking the phone.
The teacher then secures the bag and immediately places it in a drawer or cabinet that can be locked for safekeeping.
- At the end of the day, the student must return to class to retrieve their phone. You may include in the policy that if the student doesn’t arrive a certain time, then they must wait until the following morning.
It isn’t the teacher who must be inconvenienced.
- If a student is a repeat offender, defined by breaking the policy a second time during a grading period (semester or quarter), then the phone must be retrieved by a parent before or after school in the main office.
In this case, the teacher would label the bag and turn the phone over to designated office personnel as soon as they’re able.
At this point it’s important that administration gets involved by issuing further consequence.
A detention and lowering of citizenship grade (if applicable) for each time the policy is broken after the first incident will strengthen the policy and lessen the chances of it happening again.
- If a student chooses not to give up their phone, then there must be an immediate referral to administration, lowering of citizenship grade, and escalation to a stronger consequence.
This may include a week of lunch detention, after-school cleanup, Saturday school, or other.
- The only exception to any of the above is if the teacher authorizes the use of a phone for a specific, sharply defined educational purpose within a set time limit.
And that’s it.
It’s clear. It’s simple and straightforward. It’s easy to understand and easy to implement. Most important, however, it’s proven effective.
But here’s the thing: Everyone must buy in. Every teacher and administrator on campus must follow the policy as it’s written in the student handbook. Otherwise, it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
Students will soon discover that you don’t really mean what you say, and you’ll be right back where you started.
If you stick with it, however, and refrain from offering friendly reminders and warnings or pretending you didn’t see what you just saw, not only will you eliminate this one highly addictive distraction, but all forms of misbehavior will improve.
It will raise the level of respect and responsibility in your entire school.
It’s important to note that if you’re an individual teacher who works at a school that has turned a blind eye to the problem, perhaps they have a policy but don’t follow it or it’s similar to the Undercover High policy, then theoretically you can create your own policy.
You can also fold it into the classroom management plan we recommend for high school teachers.
However, although it’s possible, it takes a teacher with a strong set of relationship and classroom management skills—of the kind we teach here at SCM—to make it effective.
Otherwise, it could be more trouble than it’s worth.
A better solution is to band together as a staff. Start a conversation with your closest colleagues. Schedule a meeting with the principal. Put it on the agenda of the next staff meeting.
Introduce the policy above and put it to a vote.
Change happens when tough, smart people decide to speak up and take a stand for those who can’t—namely, the scores of students whose chance for a quality education is being undermined and trampled underfoot by this one insidious habit.
One last thing. If you think that at your school the problem is too big to fix, I just have one thing to say: Hogwash.
It will work anywhere and at any school that commits to it and decides that enough is enough.
Every student deserves an opportunity to learn without distraction.
So what are you waiting for?
PS – If you feel this is an important topic, please share this article with your principal, fellow teachers, friends, and followers.
Also, if you haven’t done so already, please join us. It’s free! Click here and begin receiving classroom management articles like this one in your email box every week.