How to Take Charge of Phones in the Classroom

We all know this scene: you’re waist deep into your lesson, pulling out all the stops, checking off all the student engagement boxes you possibly can, and then you spot it.

The cell phone.

One (or a few) kids have completely tuned you out, scrolling on Instagram or following the latest teenage Twitter angst.

You feel that little twist of anger at the lack of attention. Aren’t these the same students who, five minutes later, will whine that they don’t understand anything?

But you also know this scene can play itself out in two ways when you march over and demand the phones. Either they will give you the phones meekly, or they will staunchly refuse, citing the Phone Entitlement Amendment to the Bill of Rights (it must be there, right?).

Sadly, there’s no way to predict how a kid will respond. If you have an administration that won’t back you up on this issue, you may start out already backed into a corner.

Fortunately, there are a few techniques you can use to prevent most phone issues, and a few responses for the few issues that do arise, which won’t end with you picketing every cell phone carrier on the market.

If you plan to never use cell phones:

If you won’t use cell phones at all in your lessons, or use them only rarely, then find a system to take up phones at the beginning of class. 

The standard strategy is to get a hanging shoe organizer and have your kids put their phone in a pocket on their way in. If you teach math, you could make the kids exchange a phone for a calculator. 

If you want something at no cost that you can do right now, then you can ask students to put their phones on the chalkboard tray and write their names above their phone. 

This strategy works because it keeps the phones out of their hands. Out of sight, out of mind, right? 

The pitfalls here are that 1) some students have multiple phones and 2) some students have weird issues with giving up their phones, even if they do get them back at the end of class. Neither case is particularly worrisome as long as the phones stay out of sight. 

Even if you know for a fact that the kid is lying about not having a phone/more phones, it’s best to let it go until it becomes a problem. You’ve established that you won’t allow phones out during the lesson, and that’s the important part.

If you don't want to take up phones at the beginning of class:

Maybe it’s mid-year and the power struggle it would cause to break in a new rule like “surrender your phones” isn’t worth the time. Or, you prefer to show some basic trust in your kids. 

A compromise you can try is to set up a charging station. Set up a few power strips and a cute sign, and let your students opt to charge their phones during your class. The only rule is this: once it’s charging, they can’t touch it until the end of class. 

This strategy garners “awesome teacher” points, because you’re helping the kids out while also getting the phones out of their hands. 

The pitfall here is that the students who don’t opt to charge their phones still have temptation in their pockets. You will need to make sure you emphasize that, just because their phone isn’t charging, isn’t license to use that phone. 

If you use phones regularly in class:

Maybe you are big into integrating technology into your lessons, and you need students to have their phones on them in order for everything to work. Or your school WiFi is spotty, and phones are a good backup for Google Classroom.

In this case, your task is definitely harder to make sure that students stay on task throughout your lesson. Proximity is your friend in this type of setup. You will need to walk around your classroom frequently to make sure that the app on your students’ screens is relevant to your lesson. 

You will also need to outline protocols for common situations. For example, will you allow students to listen to music during independent practice? If they don’t have headphones and your lesson requires them, how are students supposed to complete their assigned task? Are students allowed to take pictures of their work in the name of collaboration?

When you catch a student with their phone out:

You can have the perfect phone protocol in place, and you will still have one student that dodges it. The important thing in this delicate situation is not to enter a power struggle with the student. For some reason, a situation is more likely to escalate from zero to eighty miles an hour when you try to take a phone. Even the mild mannered students will act like you’re a Dementor taking away their souls when your hand reaches for their precious electronics.

Don’t call the student out from across the room.

“Please put your phone away.” –Probably safe, albeit ineffective once you turn your back.

“Come up here and hand me your phone.” –Buckle up for a fight.

Always go to the student to deal with the situation. If you make them get up and hand you their phone, you have now granted the kid an audience to their defiance. This scenario usually ends with you forced to call for an administrator to assist you, because no one wants their peers to see them lose face in front of “The Man.”

Try asking them about what’s on their screen.

I have a scary knack for stepping quietly behind students, reading the texting conversation, and asking them about whatever drama is spelling itself out in emojis.

The speed with which the phone disappears into their pocket with an embarrassed “Miss, it’s personal!” is phenomenal. Sometimes, I get the full story and I learn that the student is dealing with an intense situation. This gives me room to empathize and build a positive relationship with the student. And I achieve my objective, which is to redirect the student.

I will also do a quick, “the answers are not on Instagram” or “we shouldn’t be shopping for prom dresses in science class” or whatever snappy response I can come up with to let them know that I see what they’re doing and to get back on track. It’s a good way to issue a warning without pressing their backs up against a wall.

Go for the “slow grab”

This is where I slowly….slooooowlllllyyyyyy…reach for the phone. At some point, the student realizes what I’m trying to do and whips the phone back into their pocket. Mission accomplished, and I warn them not to do it again.

If a student is particularly wrapped up in what they’re doing and I reach the phone, then it’s mine at that point. That’s a level of distraction that does not need temptation in their hands. A student rarely gets mad over this, because they know they had plenty of time to fix the situation. 

When it’s time to take the phone: bait and switch

Sometimes, it’s time to take the phone. But again, you need to do so quickly and without a power struggle. 

This strategy works like the “ask about what’s on their screen” technique above, but this time you feign a serious interest in what they’re doing. You ask to see what they’re looking at better and reach out your hand. The unsuspecting student gives it to you.

Then you walk away.

Once again, the kid rarely gets mad over this. Most of mine laugh at how well they were tricked. Even when I am taking the phone for a second (or third) time from a kid, they still fall for it every time:

“Oh that’s really cool, what is that?” 

“It’s [whatever it is]”

“Yeah, awesome, can I see it? I can’t see well from here.”

“Sure, Miss.” 

Then I unplug the headphones/charger and walk away. Every time.

I will lock the phone so that their files are safe. I’m not heartless.

When it’s time to take the phone: repeating record

When the bait and switch isn’t feasible, then the broken record technique will serve you well.

Usually, this is the point where I’ve issued a warning already or it’s a particular situation (like a test) where a warning isn’t reasonable. The kid has usually already put the phone in their pocket (knowing a teacher can’t reach into their pockets) and is now begging their case.

I stand next to the kid and hold out my hand. 

“Give me the phone. You’ll get it back after class.”

“But Miss, I was only [fill in excuse].”

“Give me the phone. You’ll get it back after class.”

“But Miss, I need it for [fill in excuse].”

“Give me the phone. You’ll get it back after class.”

And repeat. It only takes a few times and they’ll give me the phone (and get it back after class). They’ll be irritated, but I avoided a power struggle and got them back on track. 

After you take the phone: conference with the student

Once the bell rings, and before I hand the phone back, I remind the student of what the expectations are for cell phones. At this point, they’ve really felt the loss of their phone (seriously, some of them start twitching), and they generally stay on task better in the weeks after.

What if none of this works?

This is where, hopefully, you have a supportive administration that can assist you in these cases. My understanding is that most schools have a policy in which phones that administration takes up are given back after a longer time period (24 hours-ish) and with a fine.

Most of my kids want to avoid that situation, and will give up their phone if it’s a choice between a short wait (the end of class), or a longer one. I generally tell them that, unless they are jerks about their phones, I don’t give their phones to the office. 

I know teachers that have had particularly defiant students who wouldn’t give up their phones for anything. They called an administrator to collect the phone and moved on. It’s not a first resort tactic, but definitely an effective last resort method to keep in your pocket.

What about all those articles that say I'm doing something wrong if my students are on their phones?

Assuming you’re a teacher who 1) cares about kids and 2) is constantly seeking to grow in this profession, I would ignore those articles. It’s a given, in my book, that a teacher is trying to make their lessons as engaging as possible, and looking for new ways all the time.

But phone issues still happen no matter what kind of teacher you are. Phones are just the latest thing that teenagers use as unregulated distraction. Before phones, teenagers passed notes. Or wrote on desks. Or daydreamed. Twenty years from now, it’ll be something else. 

What takes care of these distraction issues, more than anything, is developing that positive relationship with your kids, consistently training them to think about the long term effects of their actions (because teenagers need help on that), and promoting the value of education (even the stuff they don’t like so much). They have to grow into that with you.

So don’t feel discouraged when you encounter these problems. Even the “great” teachers at your school wrestle with them every day.

Now it’s your turn. What strategies have worked for you? Let me know in the comments below!

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