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.