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  • ijm559

On Regressive Social Media Apps In Schools

Some years ago I dismissed a Year Nine English class at the end of a lesson, having told three of them that they would be in a detention. I can’t recall what it was for and I doubt anyone cares. It was then break time and I moved to a different classroom, which was next to the bike sheds. As I sat behind the desk in the empty classroom I heard a voice by the bike sheds – one of my Year Nine set on the phone to his parents. He was telling his mother angrily about the detention. Interestingly, he managed to spin the events leading to the detention to make it sound like a human rights violation. By the end of it I felt more like a Gulag Guard than a schoolteacher. There was no social media app available at this time; the call was made using a mobile. The point is that even before apps on smartphones some children were misusing mobile phones and contacting parents every time something went wrong.

Here’s another one. Many years ago, when I worked in a boarding school, I spent half an hour with a boy who was convinced that someone had broken into his locker to steal his games kit. His default response was to take out his phone and tell his mother – I’m the victim of theft! What could she have done, especially when she was overseas at the time? She would have contacted someone like me to tell me what I already knew – her son’s games kit had gone missing. I felt like Columbo as I helped him search the vacant games areas for any sign of kit which might be his. It was like trying to identify a piece of seaweed on a beach – soggy uniform strewn about everywhere. The outcome? He had left his kit in his friend’s dad’s car. But he didn’t call home and learned something about his own disorganisation that using a phone would have prevented.

Technology has moved on. In a recent TES article https://www.tes.com/news/parents-stop-misusing-class-messaging-apps, it turns out that some social media apps have been designed to allow parents immediate messaging access to their children’s teachers at any time of the day. A messaging app that allows parents to see their child’s rewards is one thing, but parents messaging teachers because their child has, in the heat of the moment, contacted home in an agitated state is a distinctly bad idea. Brave new world, to say the least. For me the root of the problem is the instant messaging apps themselves in that they foster regressive behaviour even in an adult. Instant messaging naturally fosters the belief that silence, that is no message, is a message in itself – why haven’t I had a response? I’m being blanked! Instant messaging is the epitome of childishness: I’ve got to have attention now.

Schools are a place where you cannot expect instant responses: there are just too many people to deal with at once. In schools you have to grow up and realise it’s not all about you. Yet this TES article places the blame on parents. In spite of the TES headline, parents cannot be expected to solve the challenge that smartphones and social media apps have presented. The teaching profession needs to show leadership and backbone. Policies are needed to deal with children who are now in possession of devices which they are too young to manage. At the moment, instant messaging cannot be the tail wagging the rest of the profession.

The teaching profession is a bit like The Labour Party: a once admirable institution now fast losing its principles. How many other professions would let this messaging situation happen? Can you message your doctor at any time of the day with feedback about how you have been given the wrong medication dosage? Or perhaps it is possible to use social media to message your insurance company at any point of the working day, to enquire about why your premium has shot up after three months? Do lawyers offer instant feedback? If teachers want to know why their profession is no longer respected (as some say) then perhaps they should take a look at this kind of initiative. It is giving people open access to you at any hour of the day. If it is that easy to contact someone who is paid to work for you, of course they will exploit the situation. Who wouldn’t?

Contact between parents and teachers is imperative. But it needs to be meaningful and based on information that is genuinely important and accurate to the child’s education. Otherwise the relationship becomes characterised by trivial banality. A twenty four hour response policy is a good idea, but leaving communication to the reactionary instincts of social media is just asking for trouble. So whilst The TES article attributes blame to the parents, it is important to wise up about something else. Many schools do not show enough leadership on iphone/smartphone usage and have only themselves to blame when they experience the kinds of problems mentioned in the TES.

Firstly, no parent should be allowed to communicate with a teacher during teaching hours. If they leave a message at reception, then reception should not communicate it until after lessons have finished. A teacher’s job is to teach children, not respond to parents (during the day). An emergency situation is obviously different (but would not go to a classroom teacher anyway). Parents should be discouraged from contacting schools for day to day issues generally. It is in their interests. They pay schools (one way or another) to look after their children and there is enough legislation in place to protect the child. If schools discourage parental interventions there will be no point intervening. Eventually children will stop pestering their own parents to fight battles for them. Some children, it must also be said, intimidate their own parents who will secretly thank schools for taking charge.

Secondly, no teacher should respond to a parental concern that the child has not first recorded themselves in school. There are numerous avenues for children to discuss problems in school, including the ultimate example of designated child protection officers which schools are obliged to make transparent. If the child has a problem then they should be raising it themselves, in school, and not through their parents. Their parents won’t be there for them in workplaces and at universities; there is nothing to be gained by intervening on issues like bullying, detentions, low grades and so on.

This second point is even more relevant in the world of smartphones. Returning to my story of the boy in detention, we forget that children themselves are not able to use a smartphone properly. In the TES article, it mentions how parents are messaging teachers, but I am willing to bet that most of the time it is because their child has messaged them first. I can fully understand why a parent would feel anxious to receive a text from a child claiming a major incident has occurred; the problem though is often the child’s lack of perspective, which we all had as children. I got terribly upset, aged twelve, when Kylie and Jason broke up in Neighbours. It passed. The point is that what upsets you at such an age is more quickly put into perspective when the child has autonomy to work things out for themselves. Handing them a smartphone, with instant messaging, removes the onus on them to grow up.

Thirdly, and this is clearly one for the government: no child under 16 should be allowed to legally own a smartphone. Children of that age don’t need them. There is evidence that smartphones are disruptive to learning and welfare (like sleep problems). If illegal, schools could justifiably confiscate them with no concern about repercussions to damage, since the possession is illegal anyway. Schools cannot change legislation, but there is enough of them to petition the government to do so. Once again, teachers should show some backbone by making the case that smartphones are not appropriate in the hands of a minor.

Thankfully, most ‘crises’ in schools are trivial in the wider scheme of things and, for teachers, it is part of the job. In the first weeks of secondary school children learn a big lesson: mum and dad are not around to manage everything for you anymore – you need to organise yourself. It is one of those ‘hidden curriculum’ areas that are so fundamental to growing up. But when a child has an iphone in hand, they stop growing up: indeed the iphone is like a technological umbilical cord preventing them from self-preservation. I return to my point about respecting the profession. Many people hate teachers simply because they have never forgotten the PE teacher who was like Brian Glover in Kes. In other cases angst against teachers is not helped when the profession doesn’t even respect itself anymore.