Smartphones are the bane of some teachers’ existence. Filled with infinite distraction, socialising and games, they are indicative of student disengagement when they are surreptitiously pulled out of a pocket or schoolbag in class.

However, as a young teacher in the classroom, who has been working since 2014, I’ve never taught in a classroom without phones. At first, I was as helpless as a lot of the technophobic teachers, but over the course of a lot of mistakes I developed a healthy appreciation for what smartphones can bring to the classroom.

The first thing that needs to be understood is exactly how deeply teenagers value their phones. Think about a mother cradling her first born –  the value teenagers place on their phone is roughly the same level of love and adoration as this. No, I’m not kidding. You’ve got to understand, my Year 12 class were born in 2003. They have had access to a phone literally their entire lives. And more importantly, taking away the phone will elicit roughly the same reaction as yanking the newborn from the mother: instant hostility.

Some people will say, "Well too bad, I can’t use my phone at work, they shouldn’t be able to use it in the classroom". And fair enough. But one thing that needs to be understood by every non-teacher about teaching (and yeah, pay attention, holier than thou comments section) is that some battles are better off not picking. Sure, the kid SHOULD respect your authority and put their phone away, but if they do not, you have just created a giant argument in front of your classroom that is wasting valuable lesson time. It is not your hill to die on.

Now, I want to clarify: I do not support unmonitored, time wasting phone use in the class. I am there to teach, students are there to learn. Instead, I support a contract of mutual respect, established at the start of the year. As my last few years were casual teaching in a new environment, subject and sometimes school every day, these rules have to be set down immediately, each lesson. Furthermore, if you want to know what people pushing your buttons with disrespect just for the fun of it feels like, I strongly suggest you take up casual teaching.

 

1. Know what phones can do

It is my experience that the teachers that hate phones the most have absolutely no clue about just how many things they are capable of now. It should be mandatory for teachers to know the appearance of an app’s User Interface (UI) and whether the student is using a phone inappropriately. For instance, Snapchat has no use in my classroom, but is very popular with students. It is the new millennium equivalent of passing notes back and forth. Time waster. Similar: Instagram. Any direct message or video messaging app is not allowed under any circumstances. Students look at me like I am some kind of wizard when I can spot the UI of an off-task app, and are generally responsive to saying "get off Snapchat". Simple, quick instructions and solid monitoring - which means getting up from your desk up the front, fellow teachers - will stop off task behaviour being a problem almost immediately.

 

2. Know how to use the phone to enhance learning

Very rarely do students not have a phone, and most have a camera. When taking notes, students often take a photo of the screen (usually a powerpoint) if they are slow writers to copy from their phone. I often tell students "photo now" if I am moving to the next slide and they have been slow taking their notes or completing activities. Phones are allowed face up on tables (important to monitor notifications) so they can be easily accessed. If students get a notification, I tell them they may check it but they lose their privilege if they respond. Some teachers would look at me like I am mad if I do this, even now.

 

3. Phones are also particularly strong in evaluation

A voice recording of a conversation between two students about a task they just completed has proven to be an instantaneous, authentic student reflection, and one more suited to a modern world. Students can also post and comment on each other’s recording using smartphone apps like Google Classroom and Edmodo. Super engaged in the learning, and they’re on the phone the whole time. You know, communicating like teenagers.

 

4. Music is not a bad thing

Again controversial among many of my colleagues, however I believe it’s about knowing the student’s behaviour. I recommend students avoid my favourite genre of hip-hop, because rap lyrics are quite distracting from reading or writing. However, instrumental playlists can be soothing to students who have trouble entering ‘the focus zone’ or students on varying levels of the autism spectrum.

After showing that you can manage expectations of which points in the lesson headphones are allowed in, saying, "OK, reading task, headphones in if you like", can settle a room of millennials beautifully. Just don’t fall for the trick of "I’m picking a song" - a phrase that is banned in my class, as it’s a common excuse for faffing about on one’s phone. If you need a response: "Pick a playlist and go".

The key to making phones a non-threat to your lesson is mutual respect, and being aware of what the new world we live in means. I know some teachers can take a no-phones approach and get great results as well, but I think by making it an acceptable, if not overused part of a classroom environment, many students will unleash hidden talent and creativity that you knew they were capable of, and probably show you a better way to organise your apps while they’re at it.


"But sir/miss, I don’t have data."

The other bane of a well organised teacher’s existence is preparing a lesson that embeds smartphone usage or internet research, only to have students use this modern ‘dog ate my homework’ type excuse. At least at NSW Government schools, students can access school Wi-Fi, and you better believe they know how to. So what they really mean by this is: "If I join the school network my Snapchat, Youtube, Instagram and Facebook are messed up by the school servers and won’t load anything". They are well aware of this and making them know you are aware of it too usually overcomes some initial objections and the learning commences.