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Clarity and conviction

One of my new themes when talking to teachers about effective discipline strategies is the need for clarity and conviction. Teachers need to be able to demonstrate both if they wish to see results.

Here's a situation from the past week in which this theme comes into play.

Student cell phone use

I was working with a high school staff when the issue of student cell phone use was brought up by one of the teachers.

"Students are using cell phones during class to text friends or check for messages."

Quite a few teachers seconded this thought.

"Do you have any suggestions about how to deal with it?"

"What's the school policy regarding cell phone use during class?" I asked.

"Students know that it's against school rules to use a cell phone in class. The Student Handbook expressly forbids their use."

"Well," I said, "if that's the policy, then teachers need to act upon non-compliance. Confiscating the phone, for example, would be a logical consequence and send a clear message to students that the faculty was serious about enforcing the school's cell phone policy."

I wasn't too surprised to see my response create a bit of muttering, some head shaking, and a lot of side conversations. After all, the whole cell phone thing wouldn't have even been brought up if something wasn't already going on.

After a pause I asked, "What seems to be the problem?"

"Not everyone enforces the policy," one of the teachers volunteered.

"Yeah, that's a problem, all right."

And the problem stems from the above-mentioned discipline theme: clarity and conviction.

In this situation, clarity is not the issue. (Although I did offer a suggestion to boost the clarity of the cell phone regulation. See below.)

No, the issue here is one of conviction, or lack of it. The fact that the cell phone rule is not being enforced by every teacher creates uncertainty in the minds of the students.

Is it okay to use a phone in class or isn't it? I know the Student Handbook says you're not supposed to but I also know that two of my teachers don't do anything when a student sends a text message. Hmmmmm.

The problem with this type of uncertainty is that it almost always leads to student conflict which can be evidenced by an increase in what's called limit testing. Granted, there's nothing inherently wrong with limit testing. It's actually a critical component of a student's ongoing quest for independence and self-determination and affords many opportunities to gain understanding about such important issues as impulse control and delayed gratification.

The problem, though, is that poorly defined borders and boundaries don't do much more than waste a lot of time and energy since students continue to test the same limit because they keep receiving different responses. (Core Principle #3: You are fair, firm, and consistent.)

However, when teachers make the boundary clear, and then respond to the boundary crossers with conviction--read: action--the uncertainty is removed and everyone can relax and feel safe within the classroom structure. Basically, students figure out that "no means no" and refrain from further testing of that particular limit.

Bottom Line: It's not the cell phone policy that is causing the problem. It's the lack of clarity and conviction about the policy that is the culprit.

And that's the big challenge for schools who try to institute a one-size-fits-all rule or regulation. In order for it to be effective, the school needs every teacher to stand up and support it. Otherwise, you're just asking for trouble. And, in this instance, the trouble was evidenced by: 1) on-going challenges to the cell phone policy; and 2) teacher frustration.

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Boosting the Clarity of the Message
A couple of days after my time with the high school staff, I emailed a simple suggestion: Slap a self-adhesive label regarding the school's cell phone policy on both sides--inside and outside--of every classroom door in the entire school.

Weatherproof and permanent, this 2" X 4" high-gloss silver label--$128.00 for 250 of them at Uline.com--would not only send a very clear message every time a student entered or exited a classroom, it would also alleviate the need for the teacher to make any verbal reminders.

The label would say it all.

Cell phone label

I also suggested that they elevate the importance of the cell phone policy by creating a list of 10 Student Responsibilities and make cell phones one of the items on the list.

Stating the fact that cell phone use is Student Responsibility #4, for example, would add to both the clarity and conviction of the policy. It's no longer one of a hundred rules and mandates explained in the multi-page Student Handbook. Nope. This particular rule is so important that we've made it a part of our Top Ten Student Responsibilities. And, guess what? If we're going to enforce anything, we're going to start with these ten. Fair warning.

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As I was writing this blog entry, I decided to do some fact checking by looking on the school's website to see if I could find any kind of statement regarding the use of cell phones in classrooms. And although I never did find a copy of their Student Handbook, I did find a link for a Parent/Student Handbook.

When I clicked on the link I was taken to the district's web site where I found a PDF version of their district guidelines for parents and students. Nowhere, though, did I find any reference to cell phone use. Odd.

When I went back to the high school's site, I did a search for "cell phones." There were two references, both of which were embedded within classroom syllabuses. (Syllabi?)

Language Arts Syllabus

CELL PHONES/ELECTRONIC SIGNALING DEVICES: These devices may not be activated inside any classroom or building. Violations will result in student discipline including, but not limited to, detentions, Saturday School, or suspension. (Board Policy 5334)

Clear? For the most part. The sentence "These devices may not be activated inside any classroom or building" is extremely clear. But what the heck is an "Electronic Signaling Device" and did it need to be included in this statement? Is the school board talking about a pager? If so, it might be time to dust off this mandate and refresh it a bit.

What's more troubling, though, is the conviction piece. "Violations will result in student discipline including, but not limited to, detentions, Saturday School, or suspension." Having so many consequences muddies the issue and dilutes the message value.

It would be better to state exactly what is meant by the words student discipline. Something as basic as "Violations will result in the confiscation of the cell phone" would certainly work. Anything more than that just adds to the uncertainty of the response which, as was noted above, produces conflict.

Biology Syllabus

Cell phones are NOT allowed in the classroom. If the cell phone is visible, it will be confiscated immediately. No Exceptions!

Although this gets high marks for conviction--"...confiscated immediately. No exceptions!"--the clarity piece is missing. The statement "Cell phones are NOT allowed in the classroom" is simply not true. Cell phones are allowed in class. How could it be otherwise? I mean, it's not as if they can leave their cell phones outside in the hallway before they enter the classroom. Cell phones merely need to be kept in backpacks, purses, or pockets for the duration of the period, and the syllabus should say so.

Also, the phrase "If the cell phone is visible..." is not good. The word "if" is rather weak while the word "visible" practically invites a challenge. I can almost hear the Mission Impossible theme song playing softly in the background as a student attempts to surreptitiously use a cell phone during class.

I know these may seem like minor points, but they are significant if the teacher is trying to create clarity. This is especially true if the clarity can be achieved with nothing more than a simple rewrite.

How about this:

The use of a cell phone is not allowed in the classroom. When a cell phone is used, it will be confiscated. No excuses. No exceptions.

Note: I eliminated the all-caps NOT, the word immediately, and the exclamation point after No exceptions! All three seem a bit shrill and subconsciously hint at weakness. Better to keep things understated which actually implies a calm sense of control.

After crafting and disseminating this hard-to-misunderstand message, the only trick would be to actually follow through by confiscating--without exception--the cell phones of violators. That's the conviction part.

The clarity part, though, would have been taken care of through the use of very clear language. And language, as Thoreau taught us, is a volatile truth.

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Spokane school tests jamming cell phone signals

A Spokane, Washington area high school is testing a cell phone jammer to block students from texting and calling.

A Spokane area high school is testing a cell phone jammer to block students from texting and calling.

Mt. Spokane High School recently completed a three-day test. Principal John Hook told KHQ-TV the jamming device was turned on during class time and off during passing periods and lunch hours to give students access to parents or to make important calls.

The Mead School District is checking to make sure the jammer complies with all laws before putting it into use.

School policy requires students to turn off cell phones during class periods.



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