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Cellphones Turned My Teaching Career From ‘Awesome’ to Exhausting

Two decades ago, no one could have predicted that a device small enough to fit in a student’s back pocket could upend K-12 education. But in recent years, cellphones have emerged as educators’ No. 1 nemesis.

Teachers cite them as a near-constant source of distraction in the classroom. They’re blamed as a culprit in the mental health crisis pervading our nation’s youth. Teachers say trying to compete with cellphones for students’ attention contributes heavily to stress and burnout.

Mitchell Rutherford knows this all too well. The Tucson, Ariz.-based educator, who just completed his 11th year as a biology teacher at Sahuaro High School, will not be returning to the classroom next year, in part because of how students’ cellphone use has transformed the nature of the job.

Rutherford said he felt the “all-consuming” nature of the job was unsustainable, especially once he and his wife prepared to have their first child (she arrived just last week). Much of what consumed Rutherford as a high school teacher, especially recently, were his attempts to understand kids’ attachment to their cellphones, and to get his students to see the addictive nature of their personal devices—as well as the rewards in putting them down in favor of live, real-time connections.

Rutherford spoke to Education Week about his teaching trajectory, and how it went from “awesome” to exhausting as cellphones became an ever-more prominent part of students’ lives. His story has been edited for length and clarity.

In the beginning of my career, I thought: This is awesome; I’ll do this as long as it’s still awesome. I started referring to teaching as my calling, rather than my career.

When I started teaching, I wanted my students to use their phones—to do research, to check their grades, to listen to podcasts—not necessarily in class, but in general. Then, I didn’t see it as a big problem in class or in general. There were kids who wanted to check out, who didn’t care about school or their futures. Those kids would go on their phones. But it was a very small percentage.

Observing students’ growing fixation with cellphones

What I’ve seen more recently is that even the kids who are the most motivated and want to learn and have dreams and aspirations for their futures—even those kids really struggled, especially this year, with getting off their phones in class and, they told me, outside of class and in between class and at lunch.

Outside of schools, I’ve been noticing this for at least a few years. Everywhere you go, everyone’s on their phones. Any spare minute: Waiting in line anywhere, taking public transportation, driving—people are looking at their phones. And that’s what I started seeing in the classroom, too. I’d be teaching a lesson and students would look up, and then they’d look down. It was just so clear that there were some very addictive tendencies coming out that just wasn’t the deal before.

Something shifted to kind of pull people more deeply into it. It’s kind of like the frog in the boiling water. I guess it’s always been increasing as an issue. And then finally, I was like: Oh, we’re boiling now.

I work primarily with sophomores. When the pandemic hit, these students were 12 and 13. I have a theory about why cellphone use might have affected this group more than most. This age is the sweet spot for puberty. It’s also the time when you start to feel awkward and uncomfortable and when socialization gets weird and difficult. Add to that the pandemic when, all of a sudden, society was completely upended. As this was happening, it was easier for kids to self-isolate and sit on their phones, to retreat to their phones as a kind of safety from social interaction. Then it became a habit.

Teaching how to connect in real-time

Interestingly enough, in 2023, the longest-running study on human happiness since the Great Depression came out of Harvard, and it found that the No. 1 determining factor of health and well-being is relationships, connections. I started observing more, and it became very obvious that my students were not connecting with each other. They weren’t connecting with me either, which is normally the most fun part of teaching.

So I decided right after the pandemic that I would no longer just teach biology. I would teach students to connect, to contemplate, and to be creative. I had kids do lab reports, and in them I would ask them to track things like their habits, and their sleep routines. We talked about why sleep is so important, and why phones prevent them from sleeping well, and I’d have them reflect on it to get to that contemplation piece.

And then I shifted a lot of the stuff to the connection piece. We would take nature walks and at first it was just silent contemplation with no phones. Then I was like, “Let’s hang out with each other.” I would take them out to a grassy field with trees. And the only rule was that you could not have your phone.

Some kids would sit in silence, but then others would congregate, and they would just chat and laugh and talk about whatever. Then the kids would write reflections. We did a [cellphone] detox challenge and we’d do mini-reflections where I’d ask them things like, “How did it feel to be without your phone?”

Recognizing the magnitude of the problem

When I had my students track their cellphone use, almost every kid was either shocked or embarrassed by the amount of time they spent on their phones. I would tell my students, “It’s not your fault.” Almost all of them wanted to find a way out, or reduce the time they spent on it. I’ve seen kids change their addictions. I’ve seen kids prefer to talk to each other. I know kids want that. Social connection is the strongest drug of all.

Teachers everywhere recognize that this is a massive problem that’s way bigger than our school, way bigger than school policies and small-scale enforcement. Our school has policies, our district has policies, but I think the approach to addressing cellphone use has to come from all angles, including at a much higher level—by holding tech companies accountable for making the most addictive apps and products that the world has ever seen, intentionally.

In the end, I knew I had to leave teaching because of the toll it was taking on my mental health. I wasn’t emotionally available for myself or my wife because I was pouring my heart into my students that I saw struggling with socializing, anxiety, and focus, which in my opinion is largely caused and certainly exacerbated by intentionally designed addictive cell phone apps.

I have recently applied to jobs at BASIS [a network of charter schools that originated in Arizona], the local state and federal correctional complex, and a tutoring company. I’m also completing my yoga teacher training this summer.

My daughter arrived last Monday, so I’m enjoying the unemployed time with her very much. But I’d really like to earn enough to help my wife go part-time.

As my daughter grows up, I’ll be the strictest dad ever. I will not put a phone or iPad in her visual field for years. My plan is to never have my infant daughter see me on my phone, ever.

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