Two Scary Phone Habits That Will Bring Back Your Fire for Teaching

You’re not a victim: empower yourself by controlling your phone.

Photo Credit: Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

You’re lying in bed, minutes away from going to sleep. You’re looking sleepily at your phone and notice a new email. It’s from a parent of one of your students, and the subject line sounds emotional.

Uh-oh.

Your blood pressure skyrockets as you scan the opening lines. You put the phone down beside your bed, but it’s too late. You’re already rehearsing responses and worrying about how much time and energy this issue will steal from you the next day.

Bye bye, sleep.

On another evening, you’re trying to focus on a complex task and your phone starts buzzing repeatedly. Who’s messaging me like a madman right now?

You try to recenter your focus on the project, but you can’t shake the question. After a minute or two, you pick up your phone. I’ll just see who it was.

Fatal mistake. The teacher chat is popping off with questions about a school event happening the next day, and someone’s asking for support. As one of the more experienced members of the team, you’re one of the few who can answer questions and share resources. You jump in, and now you’re living in the chat for the next 30 minutes.

The conventional wisdom says you’re a victim.

These are well-known problems in teacher land, and the fingers often get pointed angrily at the origins of the messaging.

Why do they need to send me an email so late in the evening?

How dare they message me on my weekend?

Why won’t they respect my time?

First: the practical problems with scheduled emails

One well-traveled admonishment that I’ve heard in the last few years is for teachers and administrators to schedule all emails. Never send in real time on an evening or on a weekend — always schedule it for the next school day morning, this thinking goes.

I tried to hold to that religiously for a while. But I’ve noticed some practical problems with the practice.

For one, scheduled emails can waste everyone’s time.

Let’s say that a teacher emails three colleagues for a solution to a problem they’re facing. It’s entirely possible for all three recipients to craft lengthy, thoughtful replies to the query and schedule them all for Monday morning.

When the three replies arrive, it turns out there’s a whole lot of overlap and redundancy between them — they’re all saying the same thing. It’s a maddening waste.

Scheduled emails can also create confusion.

Scheduled emails can lead to email threads with conflicting or old-news replies jumbled together out of chronological order.

The thoughtful reply that was crafted on Saturday morning has been made utterly irrelevant by a decision made on Sunday night.

Worst of all, scheduled emails can create more stress than ever.

Just put yourself in the shoes of any teacher who comes into school on a busy Monday with no scheduled prep blocks to be greeted by an avalanche of unread emails written since Friday at 3:30. I’m not convinced that’s such a blessing for teacher mental health.

Feeling some doubts around the scheduled email practice, I went to teachers to get a sense of their preference. I posted a poll on Twitter and 189 responded.

As I suspected, the majority of teachers would actually prefer the option (not mandate) of reading school-related communications on the weekend (if and when they want to) versus the Monday morning avalanche.

Two radical phone habits that will bring back your fire for teaching

If scheduled emails aren’t the answer, we’re still left with the phone anxiety I described at the top. How can we keep digital communication in its place and make sure that we are engaging on our terms and not someone else’s?

As Dave Ramsey likes to say, you have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired in order to make real and painful changes.

Perhaps you’re there with phone emails and notifications.

Wherever you are and whatever your lived experience, here are two radical moves that will transform your lived experience.

Buckle up.

Habit 1: Leave your phone out of the bedroom at night

What if I told you that there was one simple change that you could make to your life that would produce the following:

  • Less stress about work
  • Less blue light in your day
  • Less electronic activity near your body
  • More sex
  • More sleep
  • More reading
  • More pillow talk
  • More journaling and reflection

That’s right. Leaving your phone out of the bedroom at night will produce all of these benefits and more. Guaranteed.

I started this practice a few years ago and find it easily one of the most personally transformative changes that I’ve ever made. It’s one of those simple-but-hard moves that absolutely anyone can make that costs nothing.

Even beyond the bullet list of benefits above, there’s a quality of mind that’s hard to describe and impossible to quantify when your phone is not on the same floor as you. It’s like going off the grid, but better.

And you can do it. Of course, I’ve heard all the reasons why people can’t make a similar move to keep their phones away from their bedroom at night.

  • “I need my phone for an alarm clock.”
  • “I need to be available for my children.”
  • “I need to be available in case of emergencies at the school.”

Most of this amounts to “What if” and FOMO.

Relax.

You’ll be okay without your black mirror beside your head while you sleep, just like your parents were.

Scary habit 2: Keeping your phone permanently on Do Not Disturb

As Tristan Harris points out in The Social Dilemma, things that are actually tools don’t control us. They don’t call to us. They don’t insist on breaking our focus.

Tools do exactly what we want them to, when we want them to. They are humble servants.

It’s for that reason that I don’t want to hear from my phone. At all.

Turning my phone’s ringer off is a no-brainer place to start, but that isn’t enough for me.

I don’t want vibrations when my phone is sitting on a surface. I don’t want my phone waking up (lighting up) with notifications of any kind. Ever.

If I’m occupied with a task, I want radio silence and a screen that stays dark.

And that’s what I get. By leaving my phone on Do Not Disturb (look for the moon symbol) 24/7, my phone never lights up, vibrates, or rings.

My phone tells me that I’m receiving an average of 168 notifications per day, and the apps pictured below the graph show the number of notifications each one would generate on a weekly basis if I allowed them to.

Some of the 168 notifications per day that I’m not receiving on my phone thanks to DND

The iPhone exception: favorite contacts can reach me

I can’t speak to Androids, but iPhones allow a small loophole for the conditions I described above.

If I’ve tagged a contact as a Favorite, their calls and messages will come through. That means that my wife, kids, parents, and school administrators can still call and text me. As a husband, parent, and vice-principal, I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that some exceptions must be made.

For the rest of the world, including my colleagues, they are still free to message me on iMessage, Google Chat, WhatsApp, or whatever. I purposely leave badges on those apps, so the next time that I open my phone, I’ll see that I received a message.

But I’m coming to the message on my terms, when I want to. I’m not allowing others to barge in on my work whenever they please.

Why not just remove all school email and apps from your phone?

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without addressing the Scorched Earth method. I know at least one colleague who refuses to have school-related communication (email or Google Chat) on his phone. And I know there are others who believe in that level of compartmentalization.

I respect the intention there, but I’m not interested. To me, the ability to be able to read and respond to emails and DMs from my team when it’s convenient for me is far too valuable.

My logic is that if I can read, file, and respond to 30 emails while I’m standing in the Costco line-up or waiting for a family member in the car, that’s 15 minutes of relaxation time that I can spend with my wife instead of sitting down at the computer.

Or let me put it this way: if I remove all school email and apps from my phone, I’m giving up those micro-opportunities to fend off Email Mountain that a typical day provides. Instead, I’m choosing to either stay longer at the school or give up more of my home time for work.

Do you like those choices? Neither do I.

Instead, I keep all options open so that I can respond to them on my terms: when I want to, when I have the emotional energy, and when it’s convenient for me.

Boundaries create freedom and empowerment

I titled this piece Two Scary Phone Habits because that’s what they are: scary. Most readers will acknowledge some level of logic in my arguments but will likely ignore both suggestions.

And that’s okay. It’s not my intention to should on you.

But if I hear you complain about school messages and emails coming to you at all hours of night and weekend, I’m going to remind you of something: you’re not a victim of some angry parent or over-zealous administrator.

Take control of your phone.

Take back your sanity by giving these two phone habits a chance.

The results just may change your life.

Photo credit: Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

A Message to Middle Schoolers: Stop Sweating the School Stuff

Chill is a skill: don’t let academic anxiety steal the joy from your life.

I’m a vice-principal in a small middle school of 220 students.

Our kids are awesome. And our families are invested and supportive.

It’s cool to learn in our school. It’s cool to be a tryhard. It’s cool to help others learn, too.

Something else. Our assessment system features no percentages or letter-grades.

Instead, evidence of student learning is assessed against curricular standards using a 4-point proficiency scale like the one below.

By removing letter-grades and percentages from the picture, we’re also getting rid of rank-and-sort. We’re saying goodbye to trophy culture. We’re not interested in defining winners and losers.

Instead, we’re saying that we are a learning community. We pursue proficiency together because we are all developing learners.

That’s our messaging, anyway.

Academic anxiety can persist even in standards-based grading environments

I know a couple of middle schoolers who regularly demonstrate high proficiency against learning standards in virtually every subject.

They are committed and determined learners. They’re outstanding collaborators. They’re compassionate supporters and encouragers of classmates. They’re leaders in the room and absolute joys to teach.

These students project a lot of sunshine and roses, but a silent battle rages below the surface.

They struggle with intense anxiety around their academic achievement.

It’s so saddening, and it defies understanding.

What’s at the root of this anxiety?

Here’s a bold proposition: no middle schooler should have to deal with academic anxiety. Absolutely none — I don’t care how well their learning is progressing.

When high school juniors and seniors experience academic anxiety, I don’t like it, and I can make some strong cases against it. For one, the quality of your life will not depend on which college you’re admitted to.

But with college around the corner, I can at least understand it.

In middle school — especially one without letter-grades or percentages — it’s almost inexplicable. How can our students possibly lose sleep over their academic performance?

My theories about where most of this anxiety comes from

The top-notch counselling team at my school could likely offer more insights, but my conversations with middle schoolers over the years lead me to the following theories:

1. Parent pressures.

Well-intentioned or not, it’s no secret that some parents push their children pretty hard. Report card pressure can be intense. One of the many messages: your future depends on shining achievement in school. Threats and rewards of various kinds may accompany these messages.

2. College admission.

Linked to parent pressures, this is the idea that success in one’s profession (and in life) depends on admission to the right college or university. We hear this idea from students as early as fourth grade.

College admission depends on the 12th grade transcript, which depends on stellar high school achievement, which depends on acceptance to honors programs, which depends on strong middle school performance. Ta-da! The roadmap is drawn for a decade of anxiety.

3. A fixed mindset.

Some students have been called “smart” so many times in their lives that it becomes a part of their identity. Instead of instilling invincible confidence, hearing a lifetime of “you’re so smart” can create a fear of slipping or risking the source of that sacred status. Carol Dweck lays this out beautifully in Mindset.

Others describe this student as one on defense (stick to what is safe and I’ve proven I can do well) versus offense (try new things, take new risks, engage with difficult tasks when possible).

Other theories from my professional learning network

When I reached out to my Twitter PLN for their theories about where this academic anxiety comes from, their answers were insightful.

4. Personality and Psychological Profile.

Middle school teacher Riley Dueck observes that “Some students are more inclined to perfectionism/anxiety than others (see Enneagram Type 1 & Type 6).”

Intermediate educator Maria Dawson puts some of the blame on “Undiagnosed ADD. Builds anxiety and creates internal pressures. Considerably worse in females as the SNAP assessments are all geared for previous typical ADHD behaviours. Sometimes the H can be hyperfocus not hyperactive.”

5. Peers.

Erik Murray says “I see it a lot and it comes from peers. It’s like keeping up with the mini Joneses: ‘I got ranked this in the math team — what did you get?’ That sort of thing.”

Maureen Wicken is on the same page, writing “Comparison: not only is it the thief of joy, but it also destroys our sense of accomplishment, hope, and purpose. And giving everyone participation trophies doesn’t seem to have helped.”

6. Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Paralysis.

My incredible colleague Anika Brandt points out more Ps that factor into this conversation: the cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis.

She’s right, of course — some academic anxiety is self-induced (or at least amplified) by destructive tendencies. When this cycle shows up for students, it makes me want to ask: what fears lie behind it, and how can we unpack them?

We need to be more curious about academic anxiety

It’s at about this point that some of my education colleagues will pointedly remind me: “Why aren’t you asking the students where their anxiety comes from?”

I am, and I will. We talk a lot about social-emotional health with our students, but we need to be more direct and more curious about the extent of academic anxiety specifically and its origins.

When we know more, we can do more.

In the meantime, I want to share a message specifically to the people that matter most.

My message to middle schoolers

Dear students,

Your teachers and I love you so much. It is an incredible joy to be able to teach and work and learn beside you each day. YOU make the difficult work of teaching all worth it.

We know that the adults in your life sometimes forget how anxious you actually feel about school. We want to do a better job of supporting you.

Please let us know when you’re feeling low. Let us know when you’re worried. Let us know when you’re having trouble sleeping or eating because the school anxiety is so intense.

Your teachers want to help, and sometimes we can support you in ways that you didn’t expect or may not have thought of.

Oh, and our counselling team is awesome. Being able to talk about your worries with another person can make all the difference. We’d love to set up an appointment for you if you’d be open to that.

Finally, here’s some honest perspective.

Middle school life is difficult and complicated enough without worrying about grades and academic achievement.

You know that as teachers, we’re going to continue to encourage you to be curious, be daring and adventurous with your learning, apply yourself, use class time well, and collaborate with others.

But trust us when we say this: no matter how your work is assessed, you’re going to be fine. Really. The quality of your incredible future doesn’t depend on your middle school grades.

So keep developing yourself. Keep following your passions and curiosities. Keep having fun, enjoying good laughs, and building solid friendships.

That’s what middle school life should be about. Please don’t allow your academic achievements to steal that from you.

Stop sweating the school stuff, and enjoy every day of this crazy thing we call life.

We’ll be cheering you on every step of the way.

Mr. Cavey

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