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Why Teachers Fear Cell Phones In School: And how to overcome the fear

By Dr. Kathie F. Nunley
© 2014

A lifetime ago, I remember math teachers who were frightened by the thought of allowing us to use calculators in math class. They fought them for years and years. I seriously remember them saying, "what would happen if you find yourself on a desert island with no calculator?" Of course none of us ever brought up the fact that if we were stranded on a remote island, not having a calculator would be the least of our problems. And of course, there was the obvious question of why exclude a very wonderful learning aid simply for the sake of preparing for a highly doubtful future scenario.

We see a similar story being played out in schools today with cell phone use. Teachers are scared to death of what they see as their biggest competition in the classroom. I've met more than one teacher recently who was thinking of retiring out of teaching simply because of student cell phones. How can a person seiously consider leaving a profession because of one small (but I'll admit, very powerful) addition? There are several reasons for the fear:

Loss of Control: Teachers are control freaks. We admit it. Teachers and Law Enforcement Officers are the two biggest professions filled with people who have a strong need for control. As long as students are looking at us and listening to us and interacting with us or with materials directly given to them by us, we feel in control.

Cell phones give students a portal to the world outside our classroom, and in a very private and personal format. Cell phones allow our students to leave our room, without our permission or supervision. And that's just downright scary.

A Threat to our Authority as Keeper of All Knowledge: This has been an issue to teachers since the dawn of the Internet. For decades, teachers were seen as bright, intelligent people who held all the secrets to the universe within them. People of all ages would gather around them to learn from their vast storage of knowledge. We were seen as "the authority" on any and all topics.

We quickly slid way down on the totem pole of information sources once the Internet came along. Who needs a teacher when you have Google? The role of the teacher had to change very quickly from "distributor of information" to "facilitator of learning." Many teachers have not adjusted or even accepted that change in role.

Insecurity with the Technology: Let's face it, many of our students know more about how to use their cell phone than we do. They have never known a world without them. All our years of learning about how to use a dictionary, a thesaurus, a card catalog, researching through the stacks, the use of reference librarians, is of no use to us in the new world. We may feel a bit lost and vulnerable.

Fear of the Very Real Dangers of Cell Phones in School: We can't dismiss the very real fact that students can get themselves into some serious trouble via cell phones. Internet piracy, sexting, child predators, cyberbullying, are all very real dangers. And we are responsible for the students in our care. We genuinely care about them and want to protect these young people who are not always capable of making good decisions.


Despite all the reasons that we may want to ban cell phones in our classrooms, there are many more compelling reasons to allow them.

The technology is here and our students are proficient with it. There is no learning curve required for the student.

Most of our students have access to them or can partner-up with classmates who do.

The number of phone apps available today to assist learning is incredible. There are ways for students to submit real time questions, participate in group discussion, research, organize, collaborate, be accountable, compensate for learning weakness and capitalize on their strengths.

What children need to learn about cell phones is appropriate use. The "when" and "where" of cell phone use is important to their success in the adult and business world. What better place for them to learn this than in school.

Banning cell phones because they can lead children into harmful situations is a bit like banning teens from driving because they can die in a car accident. Just like how we allow them to drive, we need to train students in the dangers and risks and provide safety belts and limitations.

Cell phones solve a lot of the BYOD (bring your own device) issues that schools are struggling with today in attempting to integrate blended learning into every course.

Parents want their children to have cell phones with them in school. Businesses want students to learn the appropriate use of cell phones. Students want to use cell phones in all areas of their lives, including learning. It seems the only stakeholders that are slow to get onboard are the teachers.


It's time to overcome your fears.

Ask your students for help. If you are unfamiliar with certain apps, or are looking for ideas on how to utilize student cell phones, involve your students in the conversation. The best classrooms are those where the teacher is another learner in the room.

Set ground rules. Again, using input from students set up expectations about appropriate time and place for cell phones for both student and teacher. How are they to be used? When should they never be used? What is proper ettiquette for cell phone use in a classroom and in social learning groups? What are the positive consequences for appropriate use?

Use them! Differentiate the learning processes in your room and utilize cell phones, tablets and PCs for that purpose. You will not feel robbed of classroom control if you are not expecting all students to be attending to the same thing at the same time. Set up learning objectives and then offer students a choice in learning activities. (See Layered Curriculum)

About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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