Edward Udel: Reducing teachers to background noise

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DALTON >> I usually begin each substitute teacher assignment by arriving early so that I can preview the lesson plans. I fill in for teachers who sometimes specify that students should work independently rather than pair up or form groups. After I write instructions on a white board and direct students to work alone, they frequently begin to rearrange their desks to work together. When I instruct them to separate, there may be a groan or two followed by one or two more subtle attempts to reconnect. Students test limits.

Perhaps the greatest test comes from the unauthorized and repetitive use of cell phones. When students are asked to remove these phones from view, they magically reappear. Some students forget to bring a textbook or a writing utensil, but most of them have a least one electronic gadget.

Cell phones rule

Some are slow to begin their work even though they have an incentive to finish it. If the work is completed in class, there will be no need to do it at home. Some students immediately pull out earbuds and attach them to their electronic devices to play music. I then request that they do the work without musical accompaniment. More groans follow and an occasional test of will.

Some students claim that they require the music to concentrate, a counter-intuitive but predictable argument. They often place their phones behind an open book or on a lap so their devices are concealed while they text their friends. Teachers' voices have become background noise, unwelcome interruptions in schools where cell phones rule.

Most schools had much more restrictive cell phone policies but years of collecting phones at the beginning of each class or returning them at the end of a school day, of arguing at length with students and some of their parents about the need for focus and concentration, and of significant lost time and energy devoted to overcoming the problem have resulted in white flags of surrender. Cell phones have become additional appendages, second skins, and many educators have either closed their eyes and swallowed hard or decided that each teacher should set his/her own rules. The second option inevitably leads to the old divide-and-conquer strategy artfully practiced by students over many generations.

The last remaining vestiges of focus and concentration can usually be found in advanced placement and honors classes although there are some notable exceptions. In these classes, students are more adept at justifying their cell phones to "look up" information or assist in the translation of a passage.

No surrendering toys

But even in the rarified air of advanced academics, cell phones are still used to text friends and family, to play games or even to enjoy a favorite video while the teacher is trying to focus attention on a literary passage, an important historical event or other topics that have been reduced to marginal importance. Some students deeply resent having their text exchanges interrupted and they sometimes express that frustration in Trumpian style. Some would prefer to see their teachers deported and permanently contained behind an impenetrable wall rather than give up their toys for a few hours.

As these disruptions exponentially increase in our K-12 schools, complaints about poor performance at the college level intensify. In a 2015 national survey, 700 hundred professors indicated that only 14 percent of their students were ready to perform college level work. As states adopt more challenging high stakes testing to "turn around failing schools," a prohibitively expensive, delusional and destructive effort, more and more colleges must find ways to retain and graduate underperforming students. We tolerate and even contribute to the loss of focus, concentration and discipline in our classrooms and then send our unprepared students to some colleges that no longer hold the line academically.

'Peace with honor'

Holding a firm line is exhausting and emotionally draining for K-12 teachers, and for some colleges, financially unsustainable. Some schools have abandoned the battlefield and adopted Nixon's Vietnam War "peace with honor" strategy. They emphasize marketing in lieu of academic standards, contributing to extended education rather than higher education. Educational reformers who are consumed with the impact of Common Core and high stakes testing have no clue about the real obstacles facing our schools.

Admittedly, electronic devices can be useful learning tools when they are used to augment basic skills; but when they are used to replace those skills or when they disrupt instruction, they become an intrusion rather than an asset. Some instructors have their students use cell phones for in-class research or even writing assignments. But other applications, completely untethered to academics, seriously erode focus, concentration and effort.

If the choice is to either accept the bad with the good or eliminate the bad altogether, in this case, I vote for the latter. Classrooms should once again become cell phone free zones or we might as well declare Pink Floyd's lyrics as our new national anthem. "We don't need no education " Teaching cannot succeed as background noise.

Edward Udel was a long-time teacher in the Pittsfield Public School System and former chairman of the Taconic High School English Dept. He is a regular Eagle contributor.


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