I’m serious. There’s not a day that goes by any more when I don’t tell a student or several students, sometimes repeatedly in a single period, to put their cell phones away. And lately there hasn’t been a week that’s passed without a serious discussion around the lunch table about the need for some sort of school wide policy about phones. My school does not have such a policy; it is up to teacher discretion–and that causes some serious angst–because not all teachers handle it the same way, and that inconsistency makes it more difficult for teachers to establish a no-tolerance expectation.
Some teachers confiscate immediately. Some teachers warn and then confiscate. Some teachers ignore the problem altogether–and either this causes them serious anxiety as they are exceedingly bugged but feel helpless to do anything about it, or they have become, as a survival technique or coping mechanism, totally oblivious to the problem. It’s a battle many teachers don’t want to fight. Some teachers harass and harangue or appeal to students’ better selves by using a thing called reason. The messages are: I see you doing that, I’m bugged, it’s rude, it’s impeding your success in this moment, so put it away. This tends to be my mode of operation, a strategy which, woefully, doesn’t work very well, at least in the long term. They look at me, sometimes sheepishly, they apologize, sometimes sincerely, they put the offending thing away, and then 15 minutes later they’re back at it. Even less effective, but sometimes amusing, is a habit I have developed lately of simply inserting the phrase “put away the phone” at random intervals during the lesson, sometimes mid-sentence. “Ezra Pound was one of the first and most famous, put away the phone, translators of ancient Chinese poetry.” I can’t ignore it–because that would be wrong. And I can’t make myself into a confiscator because. . .because. . .(I’m stalling because this is complicated).
I don’t confiscate because I’m indignant about the idea that I would even have to do such a thing with high school juniors who are several months away from adulthood. I’m incensed that this has become ipso facto part of my job description. I don’t confiscate because it is not my style or my way to be a hard guy. I don’t confiscate because, if it becomes a struggle–as it often does when students feel a sense of entitlement around their devices or they have come to believe that using their phones at any and all times of day is a basic human right–the resultant adrenaline rush, the anger, the power struggle, these things make me feel shitty and throw off my entire teaching game.
Cell phones didn’t used to be such an issue. Only a few years ago, the biggest problem, and it happened infrequently, was an inappropriate ringy dingy in an inopportune moment. Easy problem to fix. Don’t answer it. Turn off the ringer. Solved. But today, with the advent of the smart phone and all its glories, students are receiving incoming digital information in the way of tweets, facebook posts, instagram messages, and texts–incessantly. They are being bombarded by this stuff 24/7, in every waking moment, and they are loath to pull themselves away, incapable of resisting, obsessed with any little blip on the screen that might amuse them or flatter them or titilate–while I’m trying to teach them about ancient Chinese poetry. They are addicted, plain and simple. They need a twelve step program. They need interventions. They need a detox.
Here’s what the sharing at the meeting might sound like. Feel free, if this is your problem, or your kid’s problem, or your spouse’s problem, to use it as a script.
Hello, my name is _____________and I am a Smart Phone Addict. I admit I am powerless over my cell phone and that it has made my life unmanageable. My cell phone owns my dumb ass. I spend more time looking at a screen than looking at faces of real people who are in rooms with me. Even on dates, I am more present with my phone than I am with my date. I am constantly distracted. I can’t seem to concentrate on any one thing for any length of time–but I can look at my phone for hours at a stretch, anticipating every notification alert with a kind of euphoria that I can’t feel any other way. While waiting for a message, I like to stroke the phone, tenderly, as if my loving attention will bring other notifications faster. I sleep with it under my pillow. The quality of my sleep is suffering, my grades are suffering, real face to face conversations about any substantive topics never occur, my English teacher is always angry at me. I have come to believe that a Power greater than myself could help relieve my suffering. I have made a decision to turn my will and my life over to God as I understand God. (Or, for the atheists: I have made a decision to control my own behavior through conscientious, deliberate practice). I have made a searching and fearless moral inventory and find that nothing about the Smart Phone makes me smarter. Nothing about the cell phone makes me a better person or helps me live a better life. I am ready for God as I know God (atheists: I am ready) to remove all my defects and shortcomings. I’ve made a list of people I’ve harmed, insulted, ignored, dismissed, and angered by my incessant cell phone usage. I will make direct amends with these people whenever it is safe to do so. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps (even atheists can do this), I will carry this message to other Smart Phone Addicts and practice these principles in all my affairs. Thank you, brothers and sisters.
That’s what I’d like to hear from some of my young charges who seem to be incapable of turning off their phones. I would so much like them to open their eyes to the fact that all the kids around them who are NOT engaged in Smart Phone Addict behaviors are twenty times more successful in almost every conceivable way. In the best of all possible worlds, I would like young people to come to these conclusions and CHANGE, rather than devise some punitive measure (anything from a giant cell phone compactor to a less draconian cell phone ban) to force them to comply. But maybe that’s pie in the sky rose colored glasses. Goodnight. I have to get the iPad away from my son so he can take a bath.