Cellphones in Class. Arg! How I Manage Cellphones so I can Teach and Students can Learn

Cellphones are a relatively new phenomenon in the classroom. I graduated high school in 2005 when texting first started to make its way into our daily lives. One of my friends could send full paragraphs without even looking down at her phone. And this was back when flip phones were brand new, and each button represented 3 different letters. She used her two thumbs to press once, twice, or three times, to spell out her thoughts. One month during our senior year, she racked up a $200 penalty on her family’s phone bill for sending 1000 texts above the allotted amount. It turns out that her habits, although they seemed a little crazy and extreme at the time, would become normalized in 2020. Cellphones, texting, and social media have since taken hold of us, hijacking our time and brains around the clock. I see it in my students when they walk to school with their heads down, phones in hand. I see it when students struggle to stay awake in class, admitting to answering text messages and checking social media in the middle of the night. Cellphones and social media are wrecking havoc on our mental health, which is a larger problem than can be solved by one or a few teachers. However, there are some things I’ve done in the classroom that have helped decrease the disruption of cellphones to our learning, and I’ll share them in this blog post.

Schoolwide No Cellphone Policy is essential

Luckily, I worked at 3 schools in my career where cellphone use during school hours is absolutely not tolerated. It is written into the school rules. All of the teachers and students understand the expectations for cellphone use, as well as the consequences for breaking the rules. Administrators regularly check in on the classrooms, and hold teachers and students accountable. If an administrator sees a cellphone, they confiscate it. The student can pick up their phone from the office at the end of the school day. If it happens a second time, only a parent or guardian can collect the phone from the office. Students know that their parent will be totally annoyed if they need to do this extra step, and they also know that it means they are officially “in trouble.” Even if there is a schoolwide policy, don’t forget to add your expectations and consequences to your course syllabus.

This schoolwide system is by far the most effective at eliminating cellphone use in class. It only takes the example of one student to make an impact for the rest. It was nice to be able to share the responsibility of monitoring and disciplining, and it allowed me to focus more on teaching and my students. It’s terrible when you work at a school where the administration won’t back you up. But at these schools I had the authority to confiscate phones, and my authority was absolutely respected by the students.

What if there isn’t a schoolwide policy for cellphones? Then I find positive reinforcement to be the most effective cellphone mitigation strategy. I’ve written about my class points and raffle reward system in a few other blog posts. A little extrinsic motivation can go a long way! Another form of reward (that’s FREE too!) is a 5 minute stretch break in the middle of class.

A no cellphone sign is a helpful reminder, but it won’t keep phones away on its own. You need a system for managing cellphones.

5 minute stretch break

Aside from a schoolwide no cellphone policy, a 5 minute stretch reward is the most effective system. Here’s how it works. The reward begins with a 5 minute stretch break in the middle of the block period, but at any time if a cellphone appears, one minute is deducted from the break. If I see a cellphone, I simply say, “Oh no, there’s a cellphone out. Now we’re down to a 4 minute break.” Any time a cellphone appears, another minute is taken away from the break. I don’t identify the student or put them on blast. Usually the students are looking around to see where the phone is anyway. Instead I can have a private conversation with them or hang on to their phone for the rest of the period. If it happens again, a phone call home. It doesn’t take long before students emphatically protect their stretch break. If someone at their table starts to take out a phone, they will immediately direct them to put it away in hushed tones. Problem solved!

Early on in the year, and after any vacation time, I remind students that their phones should remain off and out of sight during class time. Once they know the routine, they don’t need the daily reminders. When class is underway, I mention, “After the lecture we’re going to take our 5 minute stretch break, ” or “We’re going to read in the textbook and do our Vocabulary Logs, then we’ll take a 5 minute stretch break.” Students get accustomed to their break, and if I don’t mention it someone will certainly ask when it is or remind me.

These stretch breaks are enjoyable for students, and it gives the teacher a few minutes to rest as well! I use the 5 minute break to have students help me pass back papers, which saves valuable class time. Other students prefer to get up and visit a friend across the room. 115 minute block periods, or even 90 minute block periods, are way too long for middle and high school students to stay seated without a break. So these 5 minute stretches are appreciated by all and help preserve the energy and focus of everyone. Dedicated students, naughty students, and disengaged students alike, all look forward to this break. They take it seriously when they don’t get their break, so they also hold each other accountable to make sure they get it. When I used my 5 minute stretch break, disruptions due to cellphones were almost non-existent, so I could teach and students could learn.

Positive reinforcement is the best strategy to receive a desired behavior. Another idea, deduct a Class Point anytime a cellphone appears, which would delay their raffle and prize giveaway. For a free reward system, you could try my 5 minute stretch break.

Cellphone pocket holder and extra credit

I worked at another school where there was no schoolwide cellphone policy. Cellphone use was up to teacher discretion. Teachers schoolwide tried their best to manage cellphones with positive reinforcement, specifically Extra Credit. With the cellphone pocket holder system, students check in their phone by putting it in the numbered pouch organizer at the beginning of class. At the end of class they can collect their phone again. Students earn 3 points of extra credit for every block period when they check in their phone.

The benefits of this system were that overall I did have a lot of students participate, and there was a designated spot for each student to put their phone if they were caught with it and I needed to confiscate it. I used this system for 2 years because it was what most teachers used and I wanted to have consistency and clear expectations. However, I did not like this system for several reasons. First of all, I don’t agree with giving Extra Credit, especially for something that is non-academic in nature. Second, this system generated extra administrative work on my part. I had to remember to document which phones were checked in, and then every 2 weeks I had to enter the extra credit in the online gradebook. Ain’t nobody got time for that! Third, I don’t like being responsible for something expensive like a cellphone. Luckily, nothing ever went missing and students didn’t mess with each other’s phones. Another downside is I didn’t appreciate that students would try to be sneaky and get their phone back once they knew I had recorded the points. I also had students put in broken cellphones, or old iPods to get credit, while hanging on to their phone at their desk. Worst of all, while using this system, I still had to manage the cellphones and class disruptions constantly.

Despite many teachers utilizing the cellphone pocket holder and extra credit system at my school, cellphone use was rampant. It was so challenging to teach at that school.

A cautionary tale

While the purpose of this blog post is to explain how I manage cellphones in the classroom to decrease distractions and increase focus, I can’t ignore the other side effects that come with the phones. I worry constantly about my students, their mental health, and the future. How will they stay employed if they are unable to maintain focus on the task at hand? What kind of high level jobs can they get if they expect instant answers to be at their fingertips, cannot concentrate deeply, or use critical thinking? The picture that students paint for me is that they are on their phones around the clock. They rehearse obnoxious Tik Tok dances, they walk with their eyes and heads down, and they involuntarily reach for their phones every few minutes. They even check them in the middle of the night, disrupting their much needed rest. What this tells me is that students do not have healthy boundaries with technology.

To go back to my friend from high school, since our senior year, her cellphone and social media use increased dramatically. First it was Facebook. Hundreds of pictures and comments a week. Now it is Instagram and Twitter, where her kids are exploited regularly. Intimate moments like bath time pics (with stickers to narrowly conceal private areas) are shared for the entire world to see. Sadly, she’s actually not doing well at all. Her husband went off the deep end and had a complete mental break. He created disturbing videos with violent and sexual undertones on Tik Tok. He posted confusing and concerning rants on Twitter. The situation is still unfolding, but I wonder about the role of social media in his decline. My friend’s cellphone habits were extreme in those early years. Now, these behaviors are widespread and have somehow become acceptable.

A great documentary to watch is The Social Dilemma, which highlights our cellphone habits and explains how social media companies are predatory, hijack our brains, and profit off of us. It should be required viewing, especially for students, in my opinion. I was disturbed by what I learned in the documentary, and I am thankful that I watched it. I realized my own addiction with my cellphone. I deleted the Reddit app from my phone and reduced my average daily screen time by 4 hours. Seriously, I wasted 4 hours a day of my life to look at cute animal videos or idiots in cars, and read strangers complain about their lives. Next I deleted the Google app. I used to read the news stories, especially at night before I went to bed. After I deleted the apps, I found myself unlocking my phone, and searching for the apps all while on autopilot. I wasn’t in control. My advice to everyone out there is, if you ever find yourself just scrolling, whether it’s through a news feed, looking at pictures, posts, or stories, just stop. Delete the apps.

Teachers, I see you. You do so much on top of teaching Science, Math, English, History…. We teach students study skills, communication skills, collaboration skills, and skills for college and career readiness. You can be an expert in the subjects you teach, but if you don’t also look after your students’ overall well-being, which includes their mental health, then you’re letting them down. These challenges are also taking their toll on teachers everywhere, which we can see in the numbers of teachers leaving the field. The final question on my mind is, what are parents and guardians doing at home to help young people navigate these challenges and find balance with technology? My guess is their phone habits are just as bad as their kids’.

Let me know your thoughts about cellphones in the classroom by leaving a comment. And if you have a system that works for you in your classroom, please leave a comment and share! To read more about how I run my classroom, check out these blog posts:

Published by How She Teaches

I teach Biology and Earth and Space Science in high school and middle school. I want to share my personal experiences and teaching milestones with anyone who wants to learn.

12 thoughts on “Cellphones in Class. Arg! How I Manage Cellphones so I can Teach and Students can Learn

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