Five Things to Tell Your Students about Cell Phones


This is how it opens:

Dear Incoming Freshmen:

Welcome to college. This is an exciting and possibly anxious time for you. You want to do well. Fortunately for you I have many years of experience observing people such as yourselves, and I’ve been able to identify the single greatest threat to your academic success and overall happiness, health, and well-being:

Your cell phone.

You may see this device as the opposite, as your lifeblood, your connection to the world around you, but the reality is that it’s trying to destroy you.

Let me count the ways.

I want to have a version of this printed up–poster-sized–to be hung in classes around the school. You know, just above the phone number for security (you know, the signs that Faculty Council requested two years ago). Sigh. I guess I’ll have to print my own.

12 thoughts on “Five Things to Tell Your Students about Cell Phones

  1. I don’t know if anyone will see this, but I had quite a night last night, sparked by this article and my pretty strict cell phone policy. I walked into class and I overheard a couple of women grumbling about the article and “did you see what she said about cell phones…” stuff. I ignored it, not really paying too much attention to it.
    As we began going through the syllabus we got to the cell phone policy and the same two women said they will NEVER turn their cell phones off. They were ranting a bit about how they need to have their phones on at all times and they will drop out of the class before they shut their cell phones off. They then said that I was the only faculty member at the entire college who enforces a cell phone policy and that every other teacher they have had was absolutely fine with it.
    They argued that they have never had a problem being disruptive with their phones. They keep them on vibrate (I ask that they are turned off) and they look at them when they vibrate. They then take their calls in the hall.
    I responded that I had never had a student question my cell phone policy and that there is a no cell phone policy throughout the college. They were both getting pretty hot, so I told them that I would discuss it with them later after I spoke to some people and did some recon. One of the women said that she would drop out of the college if she had to turn her phone off.

    So, I am asking you….What they heck is going on? Since when is a cell phone a life or death situation? Am I crazy to think that cell phones are disruptive? Should I change my policy for these women, and ultimately for this class?

    PS. My reaction would have been different if they had approached me outside of the group and told me their personal situation. Their attack on the policy and the article and ultimately on the structure of the class left me dazed….

  2. Jen,
    I understand your frustration. I’m a part-timer who has taught dev-ed classes at the margins of the day (very early or very late). Frequently the students in my classes have other parts of their lives than concern them, such as care for an infant or elderly parent. Sometimes, the students are more motivated by financial aid than by academic endeavor. And, they are used to being IN CHARGE and getting their own way. Seeing the big picture or anticipating long term consequences has not occurred to them.
    SO, it’s not surprising that you have encountered this reaction.

    My experience with students that loudly protest “turn off the cell phone” or “late homework not accepted” or “tardy to class” policies on the 1st day are really trying to set a basis for their eventual appeal of an ADW or failing grade. They feel (rightly or wrongly) that they can’t do what’s being asked of them and want YOU to know that it’s YOUR fault.

    Maybe these students can be helped by talking with an advisor. Maybe they can come to understand that it’s not all about them all of the time.

    As to cell phones … yes I think they’re disruptive. But, I make a joke about “don’t text your class mate, talk directly to her!”. Or, I assign folks with smart phones to do instant searches in google or an online dictionary. If a cell phone starts to make noise while I’m talking — I start dancing to the tune. This last move has embarrassed more than one student into turning off the sound. And, if a student leaves class to talk on the phone, I say something like “Tell your mom I said hi!”. This is also embarrassing, and lessens repeat behavior.

    Breathe. It will make the semester calmer, if not shorter. And, good luck with whatever policy you decide to pursue. I wouldn’t change it this semester, however. It’s still your class.

  3. Jen- do not change your policy. I won’t, either. They need to pay attention to what is going on in the here-and-now. You are doing them a favor. Moving forward, insist on private conversations so that your class is not disrupted again. Good luck! You’re an awesome teacher.

  4. Please do your entire class a favor and give these students a reality check. You run the class, not them. It is not fair ot the other students in the class. Recommend they drop if they must, but rules are rules.

  5. I’d support your right to maintain your policy as is, Jen. However, the policy the students described sounds…quite similar to mine, so I feel compelled to respond (but I’ll be embarrassed on behalf of my students as well as myself if the ones who attacked your policy in a group setting are mine–sorry you had that experience. I hate those interactions).
    To clarify: the fact that I permit students to leave their phones on vibrate (as long as they’re in a bag, not on the desks) is not to say that I think other faculty should feel compelled to adopt that same policy, and I definitely see the benefits of your clear-cut policy.
    I certainly do think that requiring phones to be totally off has the potential to teach students a valuable lesson (mainly that it is possible to do it without dying…and also that it may teach them that they’re not as great at multi-tasking as they think they are). And I agree that students completely focusing on the class material and discussion while class is in session is preferable to being distracted by phones. Of course.
    But…I do allow phones to be on vibrate. Here’s why. I tell students that I would prefer that they turn their phones on silent or off. However, I also tell them that I realize many of them have other responsibilities that may make them feel like they need to check their phone if they receive a call (in the past, this has included a student with a child with a serious allergy, a student with an elderly parent, etc.), so I will allow the phones to be on vibrate in their bag if they feel it’s necessary.
    I stress that I believe, as adults, they can be trusted to distinguish between a text/caller that is a potential emergency requiring their immediate attention (in which case, I ask them to take their phone into the hall and deal with it, then return to class–all while being careful not to disrupt their neighbors). If the text is not pressing, then I ask them to put it back in their bag and deal with it after class, but I don’t want to see texting under or on the table, etc. I also tell them that I reserve the right to make the policy stricter if people abuse the privilege. (On a tangent, I wonder how department or committee meetings might be different if we all–faculty and administrators–operated by the same cell phone policies that we ask our students to meet).
    Unlike some other instructors, I guess, I don’t mind if a student leaves the room briefly to check on a text, but I believe this should be a rare occurrence, not a chronic one. I know that the one time I call a student out with a comment like “say hi to your mom” that it will be the time a student is receiving a call that their mom is in the hospital with a serious injury. And then I would hate myself. So I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt on making those decisions for themselves…until it seems to become a problem for them individually or for the class as a whole.
    So, Jen, I think you can stand by your current policy. Or if you want to do a test-run on a modified policy like this one, it might not be utterly terrible. I think your students should be flexible and certainly respectfully abide by your policy…and if there’s a significant problem, as you point out, they should speak to you about it privately so you can consider whether there’s a reasonable accommodation to be made. Good luck!!!

  6. I will also say, in reference to #4 on the list, that I appreciate the time in the classroom before class begins. I love seeing my students engaged in conversation (doesn’t have to be deep) before class starts. I happened to meet my husband by coming early to class. Who knows how things would be different if we were both (or either) distracted by our phones.

  7. Thanks for everyone’s responses. Let me say first I don’t want either of these women to leave or drop the class. I want them to get the most out of class and I would like for them to understand that there are appropriate ways and times to approach a teacher to discuss a difference of opinion or a personal need. I am actually pretty flexible about my policy and make exceptions all of the time on a person-by-person basis. I don’t usually respond well to aggressive “ganging up” – for lack of a better term.

    I should also say that my policy was developed over several years after having no policy (no need) to full-blown rudeness (phones ringing, texting under the tables and students actually answering their phones in the room while I/another student was speaking). For a long time I was a big defender of the students’ rights to have their phones on and available because I hadn’t experienced how bad it could actually be. Once I had a student answer her phone and when I asked her to step outside, she held her “wait a minute” finger up to me and then proceeded to continue her conversation while the rest of the class waited. That isn’t going to happen twice in my lifetime.

    I, too, wonder about holding up faculty or other colleagues to the same “no cell phone” standard? I am terrible about sitting in meetings (especially those I deem to be uninteresting, inapplicable, or unbearable) and using my phone (or my Kindle or my IPad). I do believe that I am less tuned-in when I have my phone nearby. I miss a lot of important information and important opportunities to connect with others. I also don’t like to feel like I should be at anyone’s beck and call at all times. There is value in being unavailable.

    There is a difference between sitting at meetings listening to something that I already read in a memo- or having a budget explained to me (budgets don’t translate to large meeting formats) and sitting in a class that I have paid for and I am invested in and then being more concerned with my phone than the people around me and the course content. I know that it is hypocritical – but I also know that if a speaker at a meeting asks for everyone to turn off their phones, I would absolutely respect the request.

    My classes meet once a week so they are long to begin with. That means that at one point or another, everyone gets up to go to the washroom. If I added the ups and downs of phone answering, there would be a revolving door situation that I probably would find disruptive.

    I like the idea of telling the students who absolutely feel that they need to be available by phone to have their loved ones call the security desk in the case of an emergency and a security guard could come and get them. I think that everyone’s definition of “emergency” would change dramatically. That is how I have handled this with my own family. They know my teaching schedule and they know that when I am teaching I am unavailable. In 14 years I have not had a security guard come and get me. There have been emergencies but not during the 2 hours and 45 minutes I teach 5 times per week.

    How about that plan?

    • Love it. That seems reasonable, fair, and enlightened/enlightening. Bonne chance.
      Also amen to “That isn’t going to happen twice in my lifetime.” I may find myself following your example next semester if you don’t mind sharing how it goes.

  8. I’ve enjoyed reading this exchange. Cell phones are always a hot topic. A few years ago CAST asked Dr. CAST, me, to write about cell phones. My response was too long for here but it’s similar to what has already been said by Erica. Quickly though, I think in our classrooms, we should be able to impose whatever policy fits us. We all have different thresholds, patience and past experiences that shape our current policies. But I do wonder about the No Cellphone signs in general. When CCC implemented CCC alerts and included a text option, I thought that those signs would be taken down. This may have been brought up at a Faculty Council meeting. Dave may have written the minutes for it. Anyhow, if there is an emergency and students (and faculty’s) phones are off or missing, how will they find out about a potential threat? This has been a curiosity for quite some time.

    On a side note, while I was in class today I was attempting to unlock the iPad carts (yes we have several iPad carts with 30 iPads obtained through a Title III grant) and couldn’t. I was tempted to take out my phone and call A/V but realized, to my horror, that the pocket that usually houses my phone was instead only full of markers and binder clips. I felt a twinge of panic. I have two little ones at home and am always waiting for an emergency call. I told the class that this may be the day something happens because I didn’t have my phone. Then we (mostly the students over 25) reflected about a time before cell phones and how anything was actually done. It is amazing how they infect everything and have become this necessity. Still, to claim that a policy about cell phones is a deal breaker for getting an education requires at the very least a reality check.

  9. Chris- isn’t there a system that has those red lights (part of the fire system) flashing if there is an emergency? I seem to remember learning about that when I was hired and orientated (if that is a word?) By threat, do you mean a gun-wielding mad person? If so, the last thing I would want is to have everyone’s phones going off simultaneously and panic setting in. There should be some sort of system that alerts the instructor and has the instructor take measures. One blink – stay put. Two blinks – lock the door. Continuos blinking – evacuate the building. Maybe I am a simpleton but that seems to be a system that could work just fine. Once the classroom is secure, everyone could turn on their phones to find out what is going on.

    • I was thinking more about the recent alerts for school closure due to severe weather or some other phenomenon. Although, would lights blinking be any less panic inducing than phones going off. I suppose the lights couldn’t communicate the exact nature of the threat as well as a phone but I’m splitting hairs. While I’m splitting, and I’m asking everyone this one, was the ability to lock a door from the inside of a classroom ever resolved? I haven’t thought about it in a while.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s