They would rather go out in handcuffs than give up their cell phones

Over the next month, teachers will be taking part in a social justice roundtable discussion in the CTQ Collaboratory and on Twitter with #CTQCollab.

As a thirty-year old white male who comes from a solid middle class background, I experienced little heartache, growing up in a middle class white school system.  I have always believed greatly in the rights of those who are marginalized, so forgive my ignorance where it may be, and help me to grow myself and those around me. 

For the last seven years, I have worked in a high poverty, school, with a large number of students of color. The two are not mutually exclusive, but not everyone on staff knows that. With over 95% of students on federal assistance, poverty is rampant in my school.  And with poverty come all the issues that are correlative to it.

More than once, I have heard teachers and administrators pass judgement on students concerning what they have, and have not. The most surprising (and disturbing) phrase I’ve heard is this: “These students would rather walk out in handcuffs than give up their phones.”  The problem is that when I’ve heard this phrase, it is rarely about white kids and their cell phone use. It is a judgement made of students of color.

After several years of seeing this play out, I began to notice something that continues to be worrisome; most instances of discipline concerning cell phone use are over-reactions, knee-jerk consequences concerning students of color and poverty.


“These students would rather walk out in handcuffs than give up their phones.”  When I inquired about the intention of this statement, I was told that the line’s intent was to encourage relationship building and patience.


Let’s be honest: this phrase isn’t about cell phones. It’s about judgement and ignorance about how people on the lower socio-economic rungs of the social latter are dealt with.  And in Louisville, students of poverty are more often of color.  And, as a result, students of color are judged, based on the socio-economic status of what they “should” and “should not” have. I recognize and understand that students of color sometimes are also poor, and that possessions are sometimes all they have.  They won’t invite people over to their house, but will buy great shoes to be seen.  I know that people of poverty often are on food stamps and have the newest iPhones.  And yet, that is not the paradigm I have seen. When we see students of color being disproportionately disciplined for something as minor as cell phone use, and it is answered with enough anger and frustration by the students, that ultimatley leads to physical acting out. When this happens,  we have failed them. With the pre-school to prison pipeline, we have evidence that we have not met their needs. We have not taught them how to live in a world that has a white set of rules.

But we can help. I have two ideas.  First, let’s change the paradigm.  If it is our responsibility to model our school after the demands of society, let’s commit to helping students be better for the society, not just better for test scores.  We ask our citizens to not pre-judge.  Why is it permissible in the schools?

Second, help me come up with solutions about how to do this.  The culture of poverty is so beyond me that I struggle to even articulate my concerns here.  What it means to be a person of color is something I cannot ever understand.  I want to serve my students of color with empathy, but also pragmatism.  I want to serve with compassion, but also fidelity to our society.  I struggle because I want to understand, and because I want to send a message to other white teachers like myself, to let them know that NOT knowing is okay, as long as we seek to find the answers. I don’t know the full extent of my students’ experiences, but I am commited to learning more.

I think it starts with the willingness to be uncomfortable, and talk about it anyway.

  • emilyvickery


    Thanks so much for this post as it resonates on the importance of perspective – taking on the mantle of those different from ourselves in order to understand each other.

    I, too, have heard off-hand, teacher comments as if they were gospel, allowing no other interpretation, which ultimately stifles or even obliterates student morale and self-identity. Over the years as a white teacher, I learned that no matter how “subtle” a teacher (or student) comment – it carries volumes of either goodwill or connotations of “the other.”

    Again, thank you for your reflection. We can all take lessons from your words.

    • kleinnj

      Thank you
      I really appreciate your words, and sorry I didn’t write sooner. The beginning of the school year and all…

      Your use of the word gospel is spot on, I think. When teachers hear or preach Truth with a capital T when no such thing exists, it corrupts the objective thoughts needed to truly change the wrongs that often exist. The paradigm shift starts with us.

  • DavidFridley


    I am a parent and my son just graduate from High School.  I’m not sure what age group you are talking about but here are my thoughts.

    I have learned through youtube that it is a lot easier for me to pay attention to a lecture if I play it at 1.5x or 1.75x. Of course it depends on whos talking, but in a normal speed lecture I basically have spare computing cycles and trouble payin

    We gave up trying to keep our son off the cell phone while he was doing homework and other things by the time he was in high school. Based on advice that I was given for rearing teenagers: choose your battles carefully, don’t try to win them all.  Our son did okay and now he is off to college.

    In the work environment I hear that youger people are better at multitasking becasuse they were raised with it.  I go to lots of meeting where people are either on their laptops or typing on their smartphones during the meetings.  It use to be that some managers would insist that people closer their laptops and pay attention.  I think that they have realized that it’s not as productive if they do that.

    My other feeling (as a parent) was that my son’s school was too restricive on smartphones, I wanted to be able to communicate with him at certain points.

    I think thimes are changing.  

    I know this doesn’t address the race/poverty concerns you were discussing, but I wanted to share what I see from the other side.

    • kleinnj

      We see eye to eye

      Thank you for your thoughts. I see two, separate issues.

      In terms of cell phone usage, I am totally pro-phone. I even run classes paperless when I can. They are powerful tools when used and managed correctly.

      However, the issue is also helping kids understand the issues involving cyber-courtesy and self-moderation. When we are willing to escalate situations without pause, it is a problem. Research tells us that students of color, and more specifically students of poverty, fall victim to quicker consequences than their whiter, wealthier peers.

      There is no silver bullet answer, and your soon is clearly a success story. Thank you for your thoughts.

  • MarciaPowell

    Uncomfortable for Who?

    Thanks, Noah.  I appreciate the idea that you brought forth here, where one supposed topic is really cover for a passive-agressive type of bigotry.  

    First, lets address the cell phone issue.  I never take away a kid’s cell phone, and that’s for my safety as well as theirs.  I have had kids drop phones down into their underclothing. Sometimes they  hold them as tightly as a testament to their memories, stored in photos and pixels.  Emotional attachment, evidence that they have something that belongs solely to their reality keeps students fighting; why would any teacher create such an anxiety-provoking scene in my class?? Instead, I set a procedure.


    1.  When I ask you to put digital devices away, I expect that to happen.

    2.  If you do not do that, I will quietly approach you and ask you to put it in a zipped bag or on the front table for the rest of period.

    3. If you refuse to collaborate during class discussion times, that is a disadvantage to the group, and is called insubordination. A penalty may be given to you as a logical consequence.

    4. Repeated insubordination will lead to higher levels of disciplinary consequences, including office referrals, problem-solving conferences, or behavior contracts.


    The second problem you addressed, Noah, is much more insidious. It supports the theme of Avenue Q, the musical, which talks about who is special, and presumably, who is not. The subtext of the NSFW jokes that once were common in schools still may exist in the mindset and consciousness of the teachers who work in a building.  Start advocating.

    Ask your district leadership team how cultural diversity will be promoted this year.  Ask your administrator how we can move beyond the euphemism of ‘color-blind’ to honest conversations about diversity.  And talk to your students about respect among peers.  Those three conversations will help you take a pulse of where your school is, and where to go next.


  • JessicaWeible

    The Key Word Is Culture

    Thanks for this article and for being so honest about where you are in this conversation. My first teaching job straight out of college was at a school similar to the one you describe. I remember, as part of our professional development, reading a book (I wish I remembered the title!) on the culture of poverty. I’m glad you mentioned the word culture. I think so often we get hung up on our ideas of race and what that means that what we’re really talking about is culture. I believe race is a social construct and therefore I would reject any assumptions based on the premise that we are inherently different according to our race. But to recognize that we have real differences in culture is key.

    And what do we do about the fact that too often our standards and traditions for public education are not culturally conducive to all type of people, particularly people who live in poverty?  It’s a very important question that I think every community needs to answer together. That means engaging the community in what is happening in our schools so that our schools can better meet the needs of the community. 

    So in terms of solutions, I would like to see more educators start there. Get to know your community. Engage the community with school events, service projects, outreach through media, and empower students to be a voice for their community. I believe this will break down some of the prejudices and barriers between white faculty and black students so that judgmental comments like the one you mentioned in your article no longer have a place in our schools. 

    • kleinnj

      Thank you
      Ruby Payne’s writing on the culture of poverty? It’s one of my favorites.

      I like the idea of engaging the leadership. It is a battle I fight in my microcosm everyday, but I agree with you. Without a systematic way to engage in these issues, my classroom is but a small sanctuary that affects little outside of my 70 minutes a day. #OurStudentsDeserveBetter

      • JessicaWeible

        I agree it’s not something

        I agree it’s not something you can do on your own but I think if you encourage your kids to write about their community and publish their work so that the community has access to it, you can jumpstart the conversation. I don’t know what your content area is but writing generally happens across all subjects. Maybe there are opportunities for your faculty’s professional development to read books like Payne’s or have conversations about culture. It sounds like your school could really benefit from your leadership on this. I think all schools could, really!

  • MattWalters


    Totally agree, Noah! By no mean, one should take off kid's phone. It's a thing out of your power.  But it's precisely what I have been told is happening in almost every state and every school. It's a direct violation of one's rights. And I'd like to contact you and even ask you to write me an essay and point out your other thoughts on the topic.