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Should Teachers Resist or Adapt to Rising Phone Use in Class?

​​The debate on whether phones should be a part of the classroom is a fairly recent one, since smartphones haven’t been around that long. “I just don’t remember [phones] really being a problem, honestly, until Snapchat got really popular, which now feels like ages ago. It probably was like, what? 2016?” said Katherine Lambert, a Spanish teacher at Berkeley High School (BHS). While teachers hold varying beliefs about phones, almost every student at BHS has one, so every teacher has to come up with a way to deal with these distracting devices — or not.

Benjamin Nathan, a BHS math teacher, talked about three general mindsets teachers seem to have around phones. “[There are the] teachers who are like, ‘I understand phones, I’m down with phones, here’s how we can use phones to make the class better,’ ” said Nathan. “Then there’s the teachers who have no understanding of phones. [They think] these things are the devil, [that] they distract you. … Then you have the teachers who are just kind of like, ‘I don’t like that they distract people, [but] I understand that they’re a tool. I would prefer it if they weren’t around … but I’m not going to vilify them.’ ”

Nathan is one of the “I’m down with phones” teachers. His phone policy in class is “basically, I don’t care.” And while this might seem outlandish to some, he handles phones this way for a reason. “When you are a junior, and really a senior as well, you need to understand how to self-regulate. And [so] I’m not going to deduct points. I’m not going to tell you to put it away,” said Nathan. To Nathan, helping students learn the skill of self-regulation is more valuable in the long run than understanding the math content in class. “What we teach you that is not the subject material is probably more important than what we teach you that is,” said Nathan. 

Nathan does stress that it is much more difficult for ninth and tenth graders to stay off their phones in class. “When I do have freshmen, I’m very much like, ‘You shouldn’t have your phone out during class.’ I’m not going to take it from you, but I am going to ask you to put it away,” said Nathan. In general, upperclassmen are better at self-regulating phone use during class, which is why the policy of ‘not having a policy’ is more effective in classes of eleventh and twelfth graders. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Alan Miller, who teaches African American Literature and International Baccalaureate (IB) English, is very concerned about high phone use in classrooms. In an email to members of BHS administration and leadership, Miller wrote, “Cell phones are BAD!!! (Michael Jackson Bad!)” 

To Miller, phones are not only distracting and addictive, but just plain disrespectful to use during class. He spoke about students texting while their classmates were giving deeply personal speeches. “It communicates a profound disrespect to the person, but also to the entire idea of education, which is [that] we’re going to listen to each other, we’re going to nurture one another, we’re going to critique one another, we’re going to help people improve,” said Miller. 

Miller values the finite amount of class time he has, and expects his students to do the same. “All of my friends know that I will cuss them out if they call me during class, and I’ve done that once this year,” said Miller. 

It’s pretty obvious to Miller when students are disrespecting his class time. “I like to say to students, ‘If your hand is in your lap, moving around, there’s only two things that really you could be doing and neither of them are appropriate for school,’ ” said Miller.

Hillary Fong, an Ethnic Studies and Social Living teacher in the Universal Ninth Grade (U9), agreed that phones are a problem. “My least favorite thing about teaching is being a freaking narc, and being like, ‘Put away your phone, put away your phone.’ It’s exhausting, and it takes from the fun and the magic of being in a room together,” said Fong. 

Fong’s classroom has a unique phone policy: each student has their own manila folder, which they put their phone into at the beginning of class. (Think: DIY Yondr pouch.) Students then put their folders into a big cardboard box, which lives in a rickety cabinet, so they can’t access them during class. 

Her whole procedure may seem a bit complicated, but “it works for me,” said Fong. Simply by checking whose folders aren’t in the box, taking attendance is a breeze. “If a student says they don’t have a phone that day, I just call [their parent or guardian] to verify, which is honestly really cool for me because we’re in the beginning of the school year. It’s a great way for me to connect with families,” said Fong.

A more common way teachers deal with phones in class is by making students put them in numbered pouches, which are hung on the wall. Lambert uses this method in her classroom, but after about a month of school, students sort of just stopped putting their phones away. At first, she didn’t really care: it didn’t make a difference to her whether students used the pocket on the wall or the pocket of their pants or backpacks. But, after a while, she realized it just wasn’t working. “I had students watching YouTube on their phones and students texting literally all class. Someone [was] taking a FaceTime call in class,” said Lambert. Recently, she has restated her policy, asking students to put their phones in the pouches once again, and hasn’t faced any issues around it yet. 

Clearly, positions regarding phones in the classroom differ considerably between teachers. Miller believes that phone policies such as Lambert’s or Fong’s need to be implemented throughout all of BHS. “I want a school-wide solution, and I don’t care what the solution is,” he said. Miller hopes in the future, students won’t even know the feeling of having their phone by their side in class.

On the other hand, Nathan believes phones need to be integrated into the classroom, but it will take time. “I think it’s another ten years before there’s really an understanding of how to use phones best in the classroom. Because [by that time] teachers [will] have been teaching with them for 15 years, or teachers [will have gone] through school learning with them. Right now, how many teachers had smartphones in high school? The answer is zero, right?” said Nathan. “I didn’t even have a cell phone until college, and my cell phone had 90 minutes on it. It took me four months to go through the 90 minutes.” 

The times have clearly changed. Should teachers change with them?

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