Cell phones: The bane of a teacher’s existence or a new tool to take advantage of?


As teachers, we are all dealing with the issue of cell phones in our classrooms.  The question is: do we (try) to ban them or do we find a way to utilize them?

Thankfully, about 3 years ago our new principal (who is a big proponent of technology) changed the school policy to allow cell phones to come out of hiding.  She allows teachers to make their own decisions about their classroom but allows students to use them in the commons areas.  I say thankfully because I had been allowing them in my class for a while by then!  I told my students – “Shhhh!!  Don’t tell anyone!”  That may have been why I didn’t have too many problems!  I like to think that it was because I didn’t make a big deal out of it and they quickly got over the novelty of it.    Dean Shareski, in his blog post,  seems to agree with me.

Having had this conversation with many colleagues, I’ve finally figured out that the ones who have the most problems with cell phone use are the ones who insist on the strictest “no phones” policies.  Now I’m not saying that it should be a “use it whenever you want” policy but somewhere in the middle.  Set up a set of expectations for their use which includes: how (information you need but can’t through the filter?, look a quick question?, listen to music while working individually?, and when (NOT during instructional time unless asked to, during quiet work time, during collaboration with classmates) and what (no, you can’t check Facebook, Snapchat, etc, no, you can’t text your friend about plans that night, yes, you may listen to music with your earbuds!).  Give the students parameters and then trust them to make the right choice.  Of course some are still going to choose not to live up to the expectations and in that case there need to be consequences in place.  I have found the worst consequence I can give a student who chooses to use their phone unwisely in class was to take the phone (with parent permission) for the rest of the day.  Trust me….it hurts them more than it hurts us!

Bottom line: cell phones are mobile learning devices.  We need to utilize them as one more tool to keep students engaged because let’s face it, we can fight them and take away valuable instruction time or we can harness the tools our students use in their everyday lives!

What are your thoughts on cell phones in YOUR class?  Are they the bane of your existence or the new tool in your instructional arsenal?




21 thoughts on “Cell phones: The bane of a teacher’s existence or a new tool to take advantage of?

  1. Hi, Chris,
    As a middle school, we have a BYOD policy, yet many teachers utter the same words, they do not want to see the devices unless students are told they can have them. There are times when I do encourage students to use them as a formative assessment. It can be difficult sometimes telling students you can only have them when I tell you. I want them to bring them to class every day! I may decide to do something on the spot. When students have their devices, we can explore more topics instantaneously!

    A pet peeve of mine is when teachers tell students they are not allowed to have their electronic devices, yet the teacher stands in the hallway playing on his or her phone. I know that we are the adults, and some would say we have “earned” the right to use our devices in front of students. I personally feel like we are not modeling what we expect students to be doing. If they should not have their devices available, I should not have mine out either.

    All of this to say that I am on board with using smart devices in the classroom for instructional purposes. 🙂



  2. Hi Shawn –

    That’s the same way I always felt about teacher / student modeling. It used to drive me crazy when students were not allowed to chew gum and the teachers would stand in front of them chewing their own gum and yell at the students to spit out theirs. I feel like the cell phone is the say way!



  3. I teach 4th and 5th graders and the elementary policy is no outside electronics are allowed. Our school provides iPads for each grade to use. If they have a cell phone, it stays in their backpack. The middle and high school are BYOD (laptops). Students can also have cell phones and can use them if necessary but I don’t think they allow widespread use. The high school can use their phones openly but appropriately. I can text my daughter who is a senior and she will respond immediately or within a few minutes. I have 4th graders with cell phones so the use of these items starts young. Again, we students are not allowed to use them at the elementary level. I feel that as students mature, so does their cell phone use (for most students). By the time they reach high school, they should have some sense of what is appropriate and what isn’t. I realize this isn’t always the case. I know at our school, they seem to trust the high school students a little more than the middle schoolers. I think it all depends on your school policy and what works best in your classroom.


  4. Chris,
    I love your notion that when allowing the use of cell phones we need to find a middle ground. I think all teachers can agree that when we take something away from our students completely, then they in turn want it even more. I teach 2nd grade and our elementary school has a no electronics policy in place so this really isn’t something that I have to deal with on a daily basis. If I were to deal with it, I think I would in the same way that it seems you are. I think it’s great that you allow your students to use phones appropriately and that you trust them to use them in appropriate ways. You are right that some will still push the limits and use them incorrectly, but by giving them consequences to those actions you are helping to instill a sense of responsibility in them. Our society and our students’ education is certainly moving towards using more technology than not so why try to take something away from them that when used correctly can be so beneficial to them?


  5. Chris,
    I love that your school is embracing cell phones, because unfortunately I think fighting them is just a losing battle. Yes cell phones can be used for calling, texting, snap-chatting but there is so much more functionality now that pretty much everyone has a smartphone. There are note taking apps that students can download and use, there are calendars for keeping track of assignment due dates, and lots of other really cool apps that we can certainly utilize for educational purposes. Cell phones can also be a quick communication tool for you as a teacher. Most students probably have their school email accounts on their phones, if you need to send out a quick reminder to your students about something they need to bring to class, then you can easily notify them. So I say embrace them, and get creative with using them in the classroom, but certainly there should be repercussions for those that abuse the privilege.

    But those that are uncertain about using them, I can certainly understand. I still recall my my third week of student teaching. A student was using their cell phone, and the school had a no cell phone policy. So I nicely asked the student to give me the phone and I would give it back after class. The student looked at me, and proceeded to put the phone down his pants. He certainly went straight to the principals office 🙂


    • Wow! I’ve had a student get really mad at me but never tried to stick it down the pants! Thankfully, parents are very supportive when it comes to consequences so I rareyly have to take it outside my class. A phone call home usually takes care of the problem since I get the parents to agree for me to keep the phone for a full day at school!


    • Things like this were happening in my district as well. Now the policy states that we are not allowed to take the cell phone away. It does take away a bit of leverage–especially for those teachers who are sticklers about no cell phones.


  6. Chris,

    You bring up a lot of great points especially regarding a “middle ground” when it comes to cell phones. The majority of our students have them, so we might as well try to take advantage of educational resources that allow students to use them. In my classroom I encourage students (especially those who are easily distracted and influenced by others) to listen to music with headphones while they work and use their device to look up information they are struggling to find or are curious about. As long as you have clear guidelines in place about when cell phone use is acceptable, they can be a very valuable tool.



  7. Chris,
    You make some really good points with allowing cell phones in the classroom. From my experience as being a high school teacher, I have found that it is extremely hard to find a middle ground with cell phones. I have tried everything in from being really strict to being more lenient. Students struggle with using them just ‘for educational purposes.’ This is a hot topic in our school with what the guidelines for cell phones should be. Currently, students are allowed to use them during lunch and in between classes only. In the classroom, it’s the teacher’s discretion as long as it’s educational.


  8. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” seems to be the general consensus although in a more proactive way! By that I mean that most of us aren’t throwing our hands in defeat and saying “fine” you can use your phones in class however you want! Instead we all seem to realize the “just in time” benefits of allowing our students to use their phones for educational purposes.

    Some schools are still stuck in the mindset that phones are “bad”! The question then is how do we, who can see the benefits, start to change their minds? What can we as educators do to show administrators that they do have a purpose in the classroom. One of our bloggers talks about how her district allows a little more access at each of the school levels hoping that by the time they make to the high school they will be able to show more responsibility in their use of phones in school. Do you think is a viable choice to get the ball rolling? Or is it beyond that already?

    Bottom line, cell phones are here to stay (whether they are hand held (or someday implanted?) so we need to find a way to use them just like we would any other tool!


  9. Cell phones are a new tool in my arsenal. I too have been letting my students use them in class for years. The district has finally allowed the students to use them in the classroom at the teacher’s discretion. We have had a BYOD policy in effect for a few years now but the devices had to be at least 7 inches on the diagonal. Most students did not have this so it made it difficult to use technology in the classroom. Therefore, I started using it in the classroom and ultimately why they eased up on the policy and let it up to the teacher. The students in my class only can use them when we are doing something together with technology but other than that, they are not allowed to use them.

    Brian Ding


  10. Cell phones in my district depend on the school/grade level. For example, elementary and middle school students are to keep them in their locker and can only use them before/after school. For the most part, the students abide by it. For the past 3 years teaching in the middle school, I have only had one student have their phone out texting instead of working on the assignment.

    In the high school, it used to be banned until about 6 years ago, they changed the rule to use during non-educational time – before/after school, passing in hallways, lunchtime. This sort of worked but soon students were using it during the class time as well. Now, many teachers utilze the cell phones with specific apps. For example, the photography teacher uses Google Drive App, Google Classroom App, and Pixlr to turn in photos taken with their iPhones as well as comment on other students through Google Classroom app.


  11. Hi Chris,

    This is a topic that is constantly on my mind! I have taken more of middle ground stance on cell phones. At my school, teachers are able to make their own phone policy, but in general the school does not encourage the use of cell phones in the classroom. I typically let my students listen to music during individual work, which allows them to access their phone. You are completely correct that this allows students to choose to follow the guidelines or to stray and get on Facebook, texting, etc. Additionally, I will often let students use their phones for Kahoot , instead of their laptop. For some reason, it just gives them comfort to hold their phone in their hands or sit it on their desk so they can see it. While this is a constant internal battle that I have, I think that we need to find ways to use student phones for educational purposes instead of fighting the constant no phone battle.

    Jess Keefe


  12. Hi Chris,

    Your post really resonated with me. I have had a similar experience… I have never viewed cell phones as a problem in my classroom. Rather, I have always viewed them as another way for students to access content, complete projects, etc. in addition to their laptops. For example, it’s much easier for students to take pictures for the book trailer project with their phones than it is for them to use the iSight camera on their laptops… Sometimes they think it’s easier to use their phones to access an app we’re using. So, why not let them? They’re learning how to appropriately use the various tools they’re given. They are fledgling adults and need to be treated and respected as such; I agree with you that giving them reasonable guidelines is much more effective than wasting instructional time telling them to put their phones away, etc.



    • Alison,

      This hit home again today for me! I have a student that missed the second day of Show Choir auditions due to a lack of transportation. So I had her use her phone to take pictures of the choreography notes on my music. I then went over it with her quickly. Thanks to her phone, she now has the tools to catch up with the rest of the students auditioning! I LOVE those “just in time” moments!



  13. Great post on cell phones and how they can be used as a learning tool! I have had many conversations about cell phones in the gymnasium and how we can incorporate them into our activities. We now use cell phones regularly in our Physical education environment. Students use their cell phones to scan QR Codes that are on machines and exercise equipment. When they scan the code, a 7-10 second video of the teacher comes up with the exercise demonstration plays. This allows the educator to be with many students at one and give individual instruction to those in need!



    • Hi Kate –

      Finding ways to “join them” instead of “beat them” is a great way to engage students! I have always loved the expression on their faces when I ask them to get their phones out to do something in class! It sounds like the PE department is definitely on the right track!



  14. I absolutely agree! In fact, as a community college instructor, I might be even more liberal on the cell phone policy.

    Not only are cell phones an educational tool, but for many of my students, it’s the most readily available means to accessing course information. My personal policy is that I just ask my students to use their cellphones professionally. In other words, I don’t expect them to use their phones in any manner than I wouldn’t expect out of myself. I almost always have my pone on me in a meeting, but I can’t let the phone distract me from the meeting. However, if a personal emergency comes up, I am going to use my phone. Just like me, many of my students are parents, have jobs, have family issues that arise, etc. I very much believe that family comes first, and if there is an emergency that requires a text, then by all means take care of it!

    I also teach mostly speech classes, and I ask my students to silence and ignore their phones during others’ presentations, just like I would reasonably do if I were an audience member during a presentation. I find that any chance I can give my students to model “adulating,” the more willing they are to reciprocate.

    As another commenter stated, it does seem as if the teachers with the most draconian cell phone policies have the most problems. Yet I also find that the teachers that limit cell phones the most, seem to be the most likely to be playing on their own phones when they are in a meeting. Stop the hypocrisy!

    Eric Long


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