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Do As I Say, Not As I Do': Teachers, Cellphones and Media Literacy

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"Do as I say, not as I do," goes the idiom that's been utilized by sitcom writers, comic artists and satirists of all stripes. Yet there's something important to be learned from the hypocrisy inherent in this statement, especially with regard to teaching about media literacy.

In a recent post I wrote about cellphone etiquette for kids, I suggested that many advice columnists and media literacy advocates advise parents to practice what they preach about cellphone use. Parents should model for their children the behavior they believe is proper and the uses for this technology they think are correct. If you don't want your kids to text and drive, don't do it yourself. If you think people should be talking to each other around the dinner table, don't use this as a time to talk on the phone or text. What we know from innumerable research studies is that children's media use -- especially the media use of young children -- often mirrors the use of those whom they observe.

So it was a little surprising to me when I heard from someone who suggested that I look into cellphone etiquette of teachers in classrooms. A teacher in an elementary school in another New England state told me of her horror upon seeing a number of her colleagues using cellphones in the classroom rather than engaging with children. She also told me about seeing many of her fellow teachers speaking on their phones or texting when they had bus or hall duty. This teacher wondered if she should be going to the principal of her school to report her observations or if, perhaps, she was just being hopelessly old fashioned.

It turns out that this is a hotly debated issue. Many schools have policies that do not allow students to use cellphones during the school day; some even have policies that forbid students to have phones with them in school, at all. But these policies do not necessarily extend to teachers.

I asked Glenn Koocher, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, if he were aware of school districts in this state feeling the need to draft such policies governing use of cellphones for faculty. He told me that he was not aware of such a policy issue arising broadly. In checking with a few local school principals I found no sense of an impending need to create such policies. One principal suggested that it was important to "establish a professional culture with clear expectations" for teachers and that to her, creating a policy on cellphone use seemed to undermine the professionalism of a teaching staff.

And yet, clearly, there are teachers using their phones in the context of the classroom in many school districts. Just ask the kids.

A middle school student told me that he had "frequently" observed teachers texting during class "especially when we are taking tests or doing in-class projects, but at other times, too." A high school student reported that she has one teacher who departs from the classroom "at least a couple of times a week" to take calls. "I don't know what's going on," she said, "but I can tell you that it's disruptive." Another high schooler was far more blasé: "we live in a world where everyone's connected all the time," he said. "Why shouldn't my teachers be, too?"

Beyond kids, parents, educators and researchers are also starting to weigh in on this issue.

NAEYC, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, dedicated an online forum to the question of whether teachers should have cellphones in the classroom in their June 2013 issue. Those writing in represented many sides of the issue. Some were unequivocal in their stance that under no circumstances should teachers be modeling the behavior of texting or speaking on phones during the school day, with the exception of an emergency situation. Some writers pointed out that teachers who use smart phones to take photos of children in their classrooms or school projects might inadvertently be violating school policies on privacy issues or the need to obtain informed consent.

On the other side, some writers suggested that there are powerful educational uses for smart phone technology, and a blanket ban on their use in the classroom would clearly mitigate this. A 2013 Pew Research Center report found that 73 percent of teachers polled said that they or their students used cellphones in the classroom or to complete assignments. A discussion on Mashable.com on this topic included issues of teachers wanting to demonstrate responsible media use, teachers feeling the need to master the same technologies with which their students show increasing facility and teachers using the power of smart phones to enable greater differentiation in the lessons they deploy for classes composed of students with different learning styles, abilities and needs. One educator pointed out that cellphone use in schools also brings up issues of digital inequalities, where the "haves" and "have nots" -- as well as those districts located within cellphone and internet-accessible zones and those that are not -- become ever more apparent.

Clearly there are distinctions between teachers using cellphones in the classroom for educational purposes and teachers using them for non-emergency personal communication of one type or another. And clearly, both types of uses are going on in different schools across the country.

I'm not passing judgment here. For me, one of the key questions raised by the use of cellphones in classrooms by teachers is a question of media literacy. As media literacy scholar and advocate Renee Hobbs points out that "Media literacy is not about teaching students what to think; rather, it emphasizes the process of helping people arrive at informed choices that are consistent with their own values through the active, reflective, collaborative and self-actualizing practice of reception and production." In other words, what teachers are teaching students about using cellphones to extend educational opportunities and to extend social connectivity through their own behavior are significant issues to consider. What teachers say and what they do, both make a difference.