I know this topic seems relatively minor to write about and maybe it is, but teachers taking away student’s cell phones has always seemed to rub me the wrong way. Before you jump to conclusions, let me explain.
Would it be convenient for student’s cell phones to magically disappear at the beginning of class? Maybe, but it wouldn’t immediately result in the full attention of the student to the teacher’s lessons. To think that it would is wishful at best and maybe even lazy. I have had the opportunity to meet individually with adolescents as well as in a classroom setting. I know how it feels to have prepared a detailed lesson only to have a small percentage of the students actually pay attention rather than stare at their cell phones. I also know the temptation to blame this all on cell phones, but cell phones were not my problem… I was the problem. I wanted to use my position as the teacher like a crowbar to leverage the attention of my students rather than engage them as people worthy of my respect.
Once I began looking at this issue and trying to actually see my students as people who deserved my respect, I saw some pretty remarkable changes. Of course, there are some students who were going to gaze into their phones like a fortune teller’s crystal ball even if I lit myself on fire at the front of the classroom, but there was a significant majority of students who voluntarily put their phones down and even participated in the lesson. I only saw this transformation when I made some changes to my approach to them as a teacher.
I realized that the way I was teaching was based on an unrealistic expectation I had for my students. I believed (maybe on an unconscious level) they will become enamored with my lessons simply because the content speaks for itself or that they will pay attention because that’s just what you do when you are in a classroom environment or because I was such a powerful presence in the room. Ok, maybe there is a little sarcasm there with that last one, but maybe not as much as I’d like to believe. These expectations excluded my responsibility as a teacher to respect my student’s fundamental agency and to improve my presentation style to better engage my students.
After mentally chewing on this for a while, I walked into my class and told the students that I would no longer ask them to put away their phones and I basically explained to them how I came to that decision. I started asking more questions, but not the kind of leading questions that I already knew the answers to. I asked questions that left space for more of their personal opinions, beliefs and experiences. I listened carefully to every student response without trying to judge them or think of what my next statement was going to be. Not only did I see an increase in student participation (and less cell phone use), but I also learned a lot from my students. I learned that, even though I was a teacher, I was also a student. Additionally, I learned that, even though they were the students, they were also the teachers. This was a change that I had to make on my own and it greatly affected the dynamic in class.