by Brad Wrey: And by that I don’t mean I hated it. I’ve just had enough. But also… it’s broken…
After 14 years as a high school teacher, I’ve decided to move on. At some point I’ve taught all levels of U.S. History, Psychology and Computer Science. I’ve coached Cross Country and advised the Model UN and Coding Clubs. I’ve made great friends, learned so much, bonded with students, found professional fulfillment, had a creative outlet, won awards and hopefully made a difference in the lives of a couple thousand people.
But I have now had enough. It is time for something else. For a long time it was great, I loved it. But things have changed. And I don’t want to do it anymore. Partially because I’ve gotten done what I needed with teaching, but also because school as an institution is now broken for a very specific reason.
By broken I mean this, students in the year 2022 are incompatible with the institution we call school. School was forged in the industrial age to generate batches of more-or-less identical humans who have the bare minimum level of skills to engage in our world. The world has changed and people have changed but school has not changed enough to keep up.
People (btw students are people) now have access to all of earth’s entertainment, information and communication at all times. People now block their ears and only listen to the sounds they want to hear. They block their eyes with images that they want to see. Speaking to a hunched over person who is staring into a tantalizing stream of short-form video with earbuds in both ears at max volume is hard enough. Imagine having to communicate complex ideas to that person that they in-turn have to demonstrate on a standardized test. And imagine that the person is chock full of hormones and social anxiety and possibly trauma. It becomes an impossible task.
Make yourself loud? Ask for them to disconnect? Wait for them to stop? Play whack-a-mole by individually asking them to unplug and put away the devices? Put your learning content on their devices? Call their parents? Take their phones and lock them in a phone jail? Issue consequences? I’ve tried all of these things. They all take an unsustainable amount of time and energy away from the teaching process. Also, in my opinion, none of those things stand a chance against the tidal wave of phone use going on in schools today.
Some say, “you should create more engaging lessons to draw the kids away from the phones?” Ok, how’s this for engaging, let’s code video games that can be made in an hour and then shared and played with friends. Let’s do a psychoanalysis of your favorite songs lyrics based on different psychological perspectives. Let’s play an economic game where you choose to either cooperate or compete against your classmates for candy. Even at my utmost engaging, I look around and find an untenable percentage of students glued to tiktok, youtube, iMessage etc. Ask any teacher, this will be in the top 3 struggles they have. I’d wager that for most it is #1.
The truth of the matter is that it was hard enough, even before phones, to teach a classroom full of students, but now, in addition to all the other struggles, the tsunami of phone usage has drowned the learning environment in distractions.
Students don’t hear project instructions because their earbuds are in. You ask them to take them out but they don’t. You look around and see the bunches of other students with earbuds in. You do one of those sit-on-the-desk kind of come-to-Jesus things where you ask everyone to unplug because it’s important to be present and conscious and to understand the instructions for the project in order to get a good grade. About half the kids unplug, you get your instructions across, take questions, tell them to get started and tell them to ask for help if they get stuck. They get to work. You walk the room and help people. After helping the first few whose hands went up, you start noticing those students who didn’t take out their earbuds. Those kids are still on tiktok, watching netflix, playing a first person shooter game, texting or facetiming with friends in other classes. You go around asking them to put their phones away then return later to see the phones back out again. You ask again, the cycle repeats ad nauseam. This, of course, is all accompanied by re-explaining the project to the students who did not unplug to listen in the first place and showing them where the written online instructions are at. Trying to help the more diligent students with their very real problems navigating complex content becomes a secondary goal. And what’s worse is that it is contagious! The students who were originally with you start to slowly slide away into the ranks of earbuded, story-watchers.
And they are doing it through the school’s wifi! That’s right, the powers-that-be at my school district consider this to be such a minor issue that it hasn’t been dealt with. Students are accessing almost whatever they want through the school’s wifi, very few things are blocked on their phones. Based on the amount of video streaming I see, I would guess that it accounts for the majority of the school district’s total data transfer. If you email the IT people about it, they’ll say “no, the students are using their phone’s data plan.” But then if you walk the room, asking students whether they are connected to the school’s wifi, they say yes and show you the wifi connection. So then you create a log of several student’s wifi enabled distractions and send it to the IT folks and after they ignore it for a few weeks they email your principal asking for the school issued laptops of those students to be wiped and reset. Ummm. This was happening on student phones, not school supplied laptops. If you’d give up and bang your head against a brick wall you might get better results.
The process for disciplining a student for phone use is equally as futile. You are required to give several warnings, and then, if they don’t put it away, ask for the phone. You document that you did that. When the student refuses to give you the phone you are to call their parents after school to let them know about the phone use. You then document that you did that. The next time it happens you can issue a detention where you make them come to your room after school and sit there. At detention they get on their phone and won’t stop. You document this. If that all escalates you can send it along to the assistant principal who now finally gets to hear about this for the first time. They call home. After it happens again, they will assign a detention where the student is allowed to play on their phone. And you are supposed to be doing this every time you see someone’s phone use being a problem. You remember, this would be about half of the students in each class, everyday. You give up. Another ad nauseum cycle. Everyone gives up here.
Side-note, I have very rarely seen a student lose their phone privileges after one of my phone calls to their parents. Parents seem to be reluctant to take their kids’ phones. Maybe it’s permissiveness? Maybe it’s fear of not being able to get a hold of their kid in an emergency? Probably both. Regardless, there is strong dismissive energy in the parent’s response. “Oh that’s too bad, you do what you need to do, have a good night.”
Remember passing notes? You’d write a message on a piece of paper and covertly pass it to a friend? Imagine being able to send a text message to your friend in another class. Ask them to go walk the halls with you. Synchronize efforts to get your teachers to issue bathroom passes. Teacher has no idea you are meeting a friend. You meet your friend in the hallway. Wander all over. Come back 30 mins later with, “Oh, I had a stomach ache.” Realize how easy that was and do it almost every day. This happens so often at my school that the hallways are nearly as crowded during class as they are at class change.
It all has sucked a lot of joy out of teaching, because it’s no longer teaching. It’s phone addiction management. And that’s not my cup of tea. I’m leaving teaching for a software development job. I’m lucky to have those skills. Other teachers are looking for their way out too.
I wrote this because I want people to know how bad it is right now. Maybe with enough people knowing about this crisis there will be some change. Maybe they could block all social media and streaming on the wifi. But then again, the students would just access it from their own data plan or VPN. Maybe they could make students put their phones in these locked bags the way you have to at a concert or comedy show, but it seems like parents are pretty dead set against this. Maybe any personal device that is used on the school wifi (or on the school grounds) is disallowed access unless a special VPN app is running that measures screen time usage and reports it to the teacher’s gradebook as a special category akin to attendance; but instead called presence.
Maybe we could change school to be something totally different from the way it was 100 years ago.
Maybe we are just going to keep on going the way things are until we lose all the teachers that care. Schools become big holding pens where students entertain themselves all day while jumping through minor academic hoops and getting passed along to be graduated out into the real world with the self-control of an gambling addict and the intellect of a 4th grader.
Maybe that’s how it already is.