At This School, the Cellphones Rule

by James A. Bacon

Literally every student at the high-poverty high school where Fletcher Norwood teaches has a cellphone — and not just a flip phone, but an expensive smart phone. And every student seems to have an unlimited data plan, and earbuds, and a recharger. Kids may get free lunches, they may wear t-shirts to school, and they may not be able to afford backpacks, but they do have smart phones.

And they use them… Continuously… Even during class.

Norwood (not his real name) tells the story of a teacher who joined the staff in September. It was her first year of teaching. One day, says Norwood, a kid was being difficult and refused to put his phone away. The handbook discourages the use of cellphones in class (unless they’re part of the instruction), but leaves it to the discretion of teachers if and when to confiscate them. In this case, the teacher tried to grab the phone. A tug of war ensued. Other kids in the class whipped out their phones and filmed the encounter. The incident came to the attention of the administration.

“I don’t know if they fired her, or if she said, ‘f— this, I’m out,’” says Norwood. But she left. “This was within the first month.”

Cellphones are an issue in almost every high school in Virginia. School authorities remain in control at some schools. They’re struggling but at least trying to maintain control in others — such as the high school principal in Alexandria I blogged about yesterday who was cracking down on cellphone use. And in some schools, like the school where Norwood teaches, administrators and teachers have just given up.

Norwood’s high school is not typical of Virginia schools, but it’s not atypical either. The school serves a predominantly low-income population characterized by high crime rates, single-parent households, and feral, under-socialized kids. Many kids are openly defiant of adults, and they curse teachers to their face with impunity. Teachers and administrators have largely relinquished their authority. They can’t compel students to do anything they don’t want to do. And that includes taking away their cellphones.

On paper teachers have the authority to confiscate phones, but policies emanating from the central office are disconnected from the reality on the ground. The newbie teacher went by the book. The book doesn’t say what to do when students actively resist, says Norwood. “There is zero training given a teacher of how to physically interact with a student. They don’t tell you how to take this thing from a kid that is the equivalent of a heroin addiction.”

In Norwood’s mind, it is not exaggerating to equate cellphone addiction with heroin addiction.

Literally every kid in his classroom has a cellphone out in the open where it can be readily accessed. During class, students are texting one another, watching TikTok, playing games, or listening to music — really loud music. Norwood can tell the music is loud because he can hear the tinny sound when kids remove their earbuds. Nothing can persuade them to put their phones aside.

He can’t make his students do anything. What little authority he exercises he gains by establishing personal bonds with his kids. Some kids in his class do put their phones away when he asks them to, but as soon as he turns his attention elsewhere, they’re back on.

“I say, you need you to put this away, I need you to hear me,” says Norwood. “Maybe 75% will put them away for a moment. But that moment is getting shorter and shorter. If there’s a break in the conversation, they’re reaching for the phone.”

Cellphone usage is so prevalent that it creates bandwidth issues for the Wi-Fi system meant to connect the school-authorized laptops. Students compete for space to power their phones on charging stations meant for the laptops. 

At Norwood’s high school, cellphone use is so deeply entrenched that taking away the devices is a nonstarter. “I can’t even fathom what you’d have to put into place to enforce the rules. It’s not just a certain group of kids. It’s every kid. You can’t just pick on one kid in the back who refuses to put his cellphone away.  Every kid has the cellphone, and has the headset, and is using them.”

The high school is perennially short-staffed and relies heavily upon substitute teachers. If 10 teachers are out on a given day, the school is lucky to get eight “subs” to show up. Will a sub enforce the cellphone policy? Says Norwood: “No way.”

Any crackdown also would have to convince the parents, but parents are part of the problem. Norwood has called dozens of parents to inform them of problems their kids are having, from slipping grades to acting out in class. Often the topic of the cellphones comes up — the kid is failing because he’s on the phone all the time. “In all the years I’ve been a teacher, I’ve had maybe one student whose parents took away the phone — and then a week later, they brought the phone back.”

Parents want to be able to contact their kid whenever they want, they don’t want to send messages through the front office like everyone did before cellphones, and they can get militant about it.

“If one kid shows up to school without a phone, every other kid in the room has a phone,” says Norwood. Parents would say it’s unfair to single out their kid. “So, let’s say I call every parent, and let’s say half the kids don’t bring their phones. But no other teacher is doing it.” Parents would say that’s unfair, too. The kids, he says, “are battling an addiction. It’s like being a smoker when everybody around you is smoking.”

As far as Norwood call tell, his school’s administrators have given up. They never talk to teachers about the problem. He presumes that “admin” (as he refers to the administration) won’t get any support from the central office if a confiscation incident turns ugly. The cop-out solution is to “leave it to the teacher’s discretion” — to let teachers deal with the problem in their own way, as they feel appropriate. “It sounds positive,” says Norwood, “but it’s really a lack of leadership.” District leadership has punted the issue. “They don’t have a clue how to combat this.”

As for their part, teachers have zero expectation that the administration will back them up in the event of an altercation. “The general consensus where I work is, don’t rely on admin. Don’t rely on other teachers. Call the VPEA.” He, like many other teachers, pays the Virginia Professional Educator’s Association $15 a month for legal services in case “the s— hits the fan.”

The cellphone-induced breakdown of classroom order disrupts the ability of students to listen and interact in class. But Norwood fears that the devices pose a more insidious threat: kids are losing their ability to sustain focused attention. He can see it in the papers they turn in. There will be a clear sentence, and then an unintelligible break. In every single paragraph and almost every sentence there’s an interruption in flow. He associates those interruptions with students being distracted by the incessant checking of phones. The result: “They can’t get a coherent thought out.”

Schools like Norwood’s are failing their students. The adults have capitulated. The children set the standards. Most are learning little from their academic instruction, even as their brains are being rewired in ways that will impair their ability to function as adults. A generation of children will enter the adult world totally unprepared to participate in the knowledge economy. It’s a tragedy unfolding underneath our eyes and no one in Virginia — except one brave high school principal in Alexandria — seems to be doing anything about it.

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18 responses to “At This School, the Cellphones Rule”

  1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Reading Mr. Norwood’s cell phone stories reminds me of why I retired at the earliest moment possible. School teachers are set up to fail with the absence of authority, boundaries, and consequences. The fix must come from the top. That also means school boards and superintendents are going to have to stand in the wind when corrective policies with teeth are adopted.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I’d be curious to hear from Matt on this for Region VII.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    A bit of a dumb question but what law or rule requires the school to allow cellphones or cell phone service?

    Seems like if kids are allowed to bring and use cell phones in the classroom, you can forget any real education.

    What say the teachers that comment here?

  3. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Who is in charge?

    Parents who allow or don’t allow this?

    Principal leaders who can enforce and are backed up by central office administration?

    Principal leaders who are not backed up by central office administration?

    I visited a school in another state and was totally amazed at the use of cell phone coverage. I felt sorry to the kids who were trying to learn. They couldn’t. In one classroom, a student entered late, cursed at the teacher, when to the back of room, picked up the land line and called her mother. Proceeded to curse at her mother and the teacher again when the teacher asked the question – “Why don’t you use your cell phone?” She replied with some added words I won’t include – ” My GD cell phone is dead.” No surprise. Then she turned to look at the two guests observing class and asked what we were looking at?

    There were signs on the walls throughout the building stating no cell phone use. Unbelievable. Cells phones were being used by students and interrupted every classroom I visited. The teachers stated they stopped reporting as it did no good. The principal sent them back to the classroom with phone in hand. I guess her superintendent didn’t support her efforts if there were any.

    In another school I visited, here is Virginia, I was sitting in the principal’s office at lunch and cell phones kept ringing in a file cabinet. She said, “Pay no attention to that. If the phone is confiscated, I put in in the file cabinet until the end of the day, they can then retrieve the phone.” No disruption in classrooms throughout the building. No signs on every corner of every wall. Just a principal that wasn’t having it! I guess her superintendent agreed.

    1. In your observation, is the disrespect and defiance of adult authority in low-income schools getting worse? My sense is that disorder has been getting worse for several years, but COVID represents a sea change. After a year out of school, many kids are worse than ever.

      1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
        Kathleen Smith

        Research would agree with you. Disruptive behavior is up in all schools. The principal who enforces must be backed.

  4. Bubba1855 Avatar

    we keep talking about ‘funding’ and ‘charter schools’…SOL scores, etc…what we don’t talk about is what is really happening in the classrooms and schools… Folks, wake up…these cellphone posts/articles are what is really happening…it’s chaos…

    Real ‘education/teaching’ can’t happen in this environment.

    1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      I understand your concern. Pretty soon teachers will have to wear body cams. I would for sure.

      1. Robert L. Maronic Avatar
        Robert L. Maronic

        As a high school teacher I would have worn a body cam in a heartbeat. However, I suspect many local administrators and central office staff would have been against body cams. That was because once a student’s distuptive behavioral problem was well documented and videotaped, then there would be concrete evidence of the student’s misbehavior. Then they would have been forced, perhaps legally. to deal with the problem, which unfortunately from their perspective, could have potentially cost a lot of money out of their annual precious travel, echo-chamber, “retreat” budget.

        Side Note: At my last high school the head administrator actually once kept our single campus police officer confined to his windowless basement office during the late winter and early spring for almost two months unless “called” in order to suppress the crime statistics.

        The DARE officer would often escape his “detention” during the afternoon by attending numerous off campus in-servies leaving our school “wide open.”

        1. Robert L. Maronic Avatar
          Robert L. Maronic

          P.S. The administrator finally let the officer out of “jail” that year right before the anniversary of Columbine or Hitler’s birthday just in time for SOLs. This is really “sick” if you think about it, and this administrator may very well become the next Superintendent of that public school system.

          When school-related problems such as illegal drugs, drug dealing, sexual rendezvous and cheating etc. are not nipped in the bud, which is pure common sense, they just continuously fester and become worse year after year regardless of the organization.

          In my opinion most, but not all education degrees should be abolished because of over a half century of failure, and they tend to produce too many dummies. I think that the Marines could do a much better job.

  5. Robert Maronic Avatar
    Robert Maronic

    This is an excellent commentary, which should be required reading for all education students in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the other forty-nine states. That also includes Governor Glenn Youngkin.

    I first observed this serious problem of the highly addictive nature of cell phones among middle and high school students while often teaching and listening to frequent complaints from numerous other teachers ten to fifteen years ago in Roanoke City Public Schools. I later learned that Roanoke County Public Schools was not much better. Now this problem is most likely truly dystopian in most major urban school districts throughout Virginia.

    I originally wrote these comments to Kathleen Smith’s previous posting, but I first forgot to click on her “Reply” link. The people in charge of our local public schools are the administrators and central office staff, who really only have three main concerns: their fat paychecks, lucrative pensions, and if in doubt, blame the teachers.

    This serious problem is similar to the Vietnam War where drafted soldiers, sailors and officers only wanted to “survive” their tour of duty of a year or two and BE GONE. Any desire to win the war after 1966 was often pointless because of the poor leadership of LBJ, Robert McNamara and the Pentagon.

    The only problem is that most, but not all, public school administrators and central office staff, unlike the Vietnam War draftees, are doing a twenty to thirty year “tour of duty.” Many of them truly and privately do not care about victory or defeat in this “war of education” except during a newspaper, television or job interview. Then they always wear their “victory face” in order to reassure the taxpayers, human resources or their superiors, especially in Richmond. Afterall, they have mortgages to pay, health insurance to think about and most especially their pensions to consider.

    I once knew very well a retired four-star army general, who was General William Westmoreland’s chief of staff in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, and briefly commanded the Green Berets in the early 1960s. In December 1983 he told me how he once briefed President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office about the Green Berets in 1962, and I must say that I was rather impressed. I was somewhat tempted to ask him about the details of his conversation with the president, but I instinctively knew when to shut my mouth.

    During an hour-long conversation in his apartment in July 1986 I privately asked him when did he realize that the Vietnam War was lost. He said in 1970, which was five years before South Vietnam collapsed in April 1975. When I asked him why he did not speak up earlier, and say something, he honestly and simply replied, “I would have been kicked out of the service, and would have lost my pension.” I was dumbfounded for a few seconds, but said nothing, and changed the topic of the conversation.

    I quickly realized that an army four-star general was not nearly as powerful in the chain of command as I once originally thought. The harsh treatment of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller in regard to his public criticism of the war in Afghanistan in August 2021 immediately comes to mind.

    He eventually retired in 1975 after thirty-five years of distinguished military service, and his last assignment was being in charge of the Southern Command in Panama from 1973 to 1975.

    The only person, who can really solve this dystopian problem with the rampant and defiant use of cell phones in our public schools, is Governor Youngkin.

    The Virginia Department of Education is full of feeble and apathetic bureaucrats, who really talk a good game, but are just like the administrators and central office staff in Virginia’s lowest performing to mediocre school districts. I personally think that the only solution is charter schools to give the parents a choice, especially poor parents, and provide meaningful competition to the public schools.

    The biggest fear that these public school administrators and central office staff have is headcount. When those federal subsidies begin to diminish they will snap to attention really quick. Afterall, when a non-special education student currently reaches the age of nineteen, most public school systems want that student “flushed,” which often results in detrimental social promotion and an undeserved “graduation” because of a decrease in federal subsidies.

    However, if these solutions do not work I have a feeling that a lot of policies relating to the failure of Virginia’s public schools such as teacher retention, ineffective administrators and a lack of discipline etc. will radically change when the U.S. national debt approaches $40 trillion, and Washington defaults on its gargantuan debt resulting in quarters and dimes on our pensions. When the bookies in Las Vegas start taking bets on the default of our nation’s debt, we will truly be in trouble or very deep cow manure requiring boots above our knees.

    Does anyone know if there is an e-book version of Jim Bacon’s prescient Boomergeddon? See I need to read it, and so do our representatives in Congress.

    1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      Good points.

  6. Robert Maronic Avatar
    Robert Maronic

    P.S. The Virginia School Boards, especially the Roanoke County School Board, remind me somewhat of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. She most dutifully listens and privately provides pertinent advice once a week to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but she is basically a figurehead and somewhat powerless. However, unlike Queen Elizabeth II, Virginia’s School Boards regularly, ceremoniously and respectfully interact with the general public often to no avail, and are usually considerably less wealthy, which is truly an understatement.

    The real power resides with Parliament, which in Virginia would be the principals, high ranking administrators and a few erudite central office staff if they exist (House of Commons) and the “venerable,” but useless Virginia Department of Education (House of Lords). Of course, the Prime Minister would be the esteemed Glenn Youngkin.

    I truly wonder how much courage our governor has to improve Virginia’s public schools? Time will tell, but I would not become too optimistic. I suppose the ultimate question would be is he a statesman or just another damn politician or pig feeding at the trough? I suspect the latter. Please prove me wrong, Governor Youngkin because many of your public schools, especially in eastern and southside Virginia, are FUBAR, and most of the rest are totally mired in mediocrity because passing the SOLs (Standards of Learning) are like jumping over ten-inch hurdles!

  7. Merchantseamen Avatar

    Everyone in authority are cowards. I read an article not long ago. Bottom line the article stated “young people would quit the job before putting their phone away”. The cell phones are an addiction. At the ABC store women would hold up the line by stopping the transaction mid stream to answer their hone be it text or call. The could never put their phone or keys down or away to make the trade. You notice it is mostly mad women who are calling everyone transphobe racist, cannot merge on to the interstate without stopping and can’t keep their trap shut when men are talking. But hey they went to college right?

  8. I wonder if this is àn issue in China?

    1. Robert L. Maronic Avatar
      Robert L. Maronic

      I sincerely doubt it. Chinese schools have a very tolerance for disruption and misbehavior according to a former student, who one taught in a city just west of Shanghai. Did you know that Communist China produces as many engineers per year as the U.S. produces college graduates? See and That is the bad news, but the U.S still leads the world for now in scientific and engineering creativity, which China often lacks and simply steals. If the U.S. is not careful, they could very soon “clean our clock.” I am not optimistic.

      1. I was being sarcastic.

        1. Robert L. Maronic Avatar
          Robert L. Maronic

          No problem. Corporal discipline is much worse in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam.

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