Stop Conveying Internal Conflict to Your Students

When I hear a teacher enforce a class rule or inform students of a decision, it often sounds like…
“Don’t make me send you to the office.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you turn that in late.”
“I’m going to have to take your phone.”
“I’m afraid I’m gonna have to take that.”
“I’m not supposed to let you have your phone out.”

Sound familiar?

What’s the problem?

Don’t make me…
I’m sorry, but I can’t let you…
I have to…”
I’m not supposed to…

How do you think the speaker feels about the decision? Who made these decisions? What is the speaker’s role in these decisions?

As a student, I might see this teacher as being apologetic, regretful, or disempowered… a victim, puppet, pushover, or tool.

Why do we use phrases like this? Perhaps to “soften the blow” of a demand or decision, to say “Hey look… I’m on your side. I don’t like this either, but someone/something is making us do this!” The admin pressure us to enforce these rules. I must do this because it is my job, whether I like it or not. I made this decision and I must stick to it! Regardless of the reason we use these phrases (possibly just force of habit and never really thinking about it), they send the same message: I don’t stand behind my own decision.

So what happens? What happens when you convey your internal conflict to your students? Students will fight harder for their side in this conflict because they know they have someone else fighting for their side: You.

This might sound something like “Awww, cmon!” or “You don’t have to do that!” Or they exploit your guilt on their side of this conflict. “You’re so mean!” “That’s not fair.”

So what can be done to reduce this pushback? Use wording that conveys you own your decisions, or at least wording that conveys neutrality instead of internal conflict.

What to say instead

Here are some possible substitutes for the internal conflict wording:

Notice the “better” statements are simply requests or simply statements of rules or what action will take place. Their simplicity and directness convey to students the decision and request come directly and whole-heartedly from you. Instead of conveying “Auuugh this is what I must do” or “Don’t get mad at me for doing this”… just do it. Maybe you’ll feel mean. Maybe you’ll feel blunt. Maybe you’ll feel more empowered and find your students trying less to cajole you.

It’s a simple switch, so give it a try and see how goes!

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How To Confiscate a Cell Phone in 3 Steps – And What To Do When A Student Refuses

I have used this technique for over seven years for confiscating student cell phones with relatively high success rate and relatively low disruption to class. The heart of this technique is the “broken record” technique.

The Technique

  1. Ask for the phone. When you see a student using their phone, calmly walk up (as opposed to furiously storming up) to the student and in a neutral tone, ask for the phone
    • I use the line “Phone, please” (or nowadays, I may just put my hand out).
    • Your demeanor should be calm and neutral. Make sure you’re not teeth-gratingly-angry-beneath-a-fake-calm-exterior. Do not smile or act pleasant, as (depending on your personality with the students,) the student may think you’re playing around and might play around in return.
    • Convey that you’re serious but not upset about collecting their phone.
    • If you’re not sure how to act “neutral”, act bored.

    Let’s assume the student does not give you the phone (*gasp!*).

  2. Repeat the request… repeatedly. Repeat the request. This is the “broken record” part. No matter what their reply/retort/objection is, you simply repeat your request in the same neutral tone. Do not escalate your emotions. Do not appear to become more annoyed, frustrated, angrier, or more demanding with subsequent requests.
    • Resist the temptation to duel with the student. Oftentimes students will retort instead of giving you the phone (“I was just checking the time.”, “Fine, I’ll put it away.”, “You never told us you’d take our phone.”, etc.) It doesn’t matter if you have the perfect reason/lesson/comeback for what the student says.
    • Sometimes students will instead put the phone away, hoping I’ll accept that as a substitute for confiscation. I do not accept that, as it tells the student that they don’t have to abide by my consequences, that they can make up their own alternatives or bargain their way out of the expectations they were aware of. I repeat my request.
  3. Give an ultimatum. When you feel things are not going anywhere (about 5-10 times for me), offer an ultimatum in the same neutral tone. I say, “I will ask you one more time. You can choose to give me the phone and have it back at the end of class, or you can choose to keep your phone and be sent to the office (call your parent, whatever the escalation is). [pause] Please give me the phone.”
    • Present the “ultimatum” as two neutral options in which you have no stake in. Present the ultimatum in a way that does not sound like you’re making a threat (Bad example: “Give me the phone or I’ll send you to the office.”). If the student perceives you are threatening them, they may be more likely to keep the phone out of spite. It’s not about “you win” or “they win”, it’s merely a decision that they need to make.
    • When/if they give me the phone, I say “thank you” (and store the phone in a safe location).
    • If the student decides to keep the phone, I neutrally follow through with the course of action they chose, without conveying anger, disappointment, etc. I presented them two options and allowed them to choose. They chose. There was no implication that that choice came with “and your teacher is going to be real pissed at you for choosing this option.” Your rules, consequences, and consistency – and not your emotions – send your message.


Before you change or start enforcing your phone policy, you should make clear to students your policy. This is what I announce to each period at the beginning of the year:

My cell phone policy is that you may not use your phone in class unless I give you permission. If I see you using your phone, I will ask for it. I will not give you any warnings. It doesn’t matter what you’re using it for, whether you’re checking the time or using it as a mirror. If I see it, I may ask for it, so your best bet is to just keep it out of sight. If I do collect your phone, I will keep it until the end of class.

If you are implementing this mid-year, you should give your students a heads-up (““Cell phones have been distracting, to you, and to me. From now on, if I see you using your cell phone for any reason, I will ask for it. I will not give any warnings. If I collect your phone, you will get it back at the end of class.”)

Your priority is that students exhibit the desired behavior because they understand the rationale and consequences. The spirit of this is not “gotcha!”.

How It Works

  • By starting small and never escalating emotions, you keep the stakes low, and you avoid drawing the attention of the class. You are not playing chicken.
  • By having a straightforward plan of action, you remove the unknown. Many of us are hesitant to try something because “what if?…”. In this case, all the “what ifs” are answered by having a system to follow. You do not have to make decisions or verbally “spar” with the student. When you notice the target behavior, you deploy the procedure, then continue class. You are like a robot following a program. You are not thinking on your feet, reacting to the student’s actions or emotions. There is no emotional investment (stress/anxiety/frustration).
  • The system reduces the student’s opportunity to deflect the conversation and further distract the class. This is done through keeping the interaction focused on the requested action.
  • Another way this system keeps stakes low is that it disentangles a stated literal consequence from emotional, judgmental, and relational consequences (I’m angry at you, I don’t like you, you’re a rotten kid, I’ll show you who’s in charge, etc.) It does not leverage guilt, shame, or intimidation. Instead, the message you are trying to send through this whole process is “You should not be distracted with your cell phone right now. The consequence, which you were aware of, is you must forfeit your cell phone until the end of class.”

Additional Considerations

  • I return the phone at the end of the period. I’m likely to get more resistance if I keep it until the end of the day. I find the importance is not so much in the severity of the consequence as much as in the consistency of the enforcement.
  • If a ringer or notification goes off, I tell the student to just take out the device, turn it off, and put it back away. Ringers accidentally going off in class have been rare and I don’t consider them as a behavior issue that calls for confiscating the device.
  • I use this technique for only very routine things students already know the rationale behind. Every student already knows there is no reason for them to use their phones in my class unless I say otherwise. In cases outside of this, students can be confused about why you’re asking them to do something or they may genuinely feel it is not fair (as opposed to just trying to get away with breaking rules). In such cases, you might be open to having a discussion with the student as opposed to just be focused on compliance.

Don’t Undermine Your Success

Several things may jeopardize the system. Please…

  • DO NOT… Give warnings.
    I give no warnings. First, not having warnings makes the rule and the consequence very simple. Second, I don’t have the mental capacity to keep track of warnings. Third, the rule is simple enough that a student doesn’t need to be warned to understand it. Fourth, my consequence is not severe enough that it requires the “safety net” of a warning. Lastly, letting them have a warning each day is really just saying to them “Every day, every one of you students has permission to use your cell phone until I catch you for that day.”
  • DO NOT… Assume a student is using her phone.
    I confiscate a phone only when I directly see the student using her phone – and almost always the student knows I saw it so there’s rarely a debate that goes like “I wasn’t using my phone! I didn’t even have it out!” – which if you didn’t actually see her using it, she may actually be speaking the truth. There’s nothing to cause bitterness against a teacher like being punished for something you didn’t do. Even if you didn’t see it but you are absolutely certain they were using their phone, a different dynamic may play out if the student knows you didn’t actually see the phone. If they were just quick to hide the phone before I saw it, at least they respect my system enough to not want to get caught.
  • DO NOT… Improvise/escalate by impulsively changing the consequences.
    Ex: “I usually keep the phone for the period but it took so much just to get the phone from that kid, I then told him I’m keeping it for the rest of the day. That’ll show him to talk back when I ask for his phone.”
    A clearly communicated and consistently enforced system allows students to practice making good decisions. Switching up the system impulsively allows students to practice distrusting you (and possibly other adults).

Extreme Behavior

My biggest fear in enforcing rules was if a student reacts in some extreme manner.

  • First, you greatly reduce the risk of extreme behavior by attempting to neutrally enforce a very reasonable policy and consequence the student knew about ahead of time. If you follow the system and remain neutral, your student is less likely to take it personally. They may be mad at your system, but if you escalate your emotions, that may give them reason to be mad at you, and further risks damaging your relationship with the student or fueling emotional flames that lead to extreme behavior. Most of my students who use cell phones in class are willing to push the boundaries enough to give some backtalk but not enough to risk facing the consequences for blatant defiance. When faced with a decision in a rational state of mind, these students are less likely to choose the more severe consequence. By using impromptu threats and not making the policy clear ahead of time, you put the student in a situation of making this decision on emotions charged with rage, indignity, spite, etc. This greatly increases the risk of the student making a decision they will later regret.
  • “Yeah, but what if things do escalate?” I realized my fear was of the unknown. The student could behave in so many ways that I wouldn’t know how to react to them. Here’s how to react: Stick to the procedure. Even if extreme behavior pops up (“Give me the phone, please.” “F@%$ you!”), stick to the procedure (“… Give me the phone, please.”). If the behavior is that extreme, treat it as a separate issue that you can address later after giving it some calm and reasoned thought. It’s probably best to deal with it later anyway (after class, next day – of course assuming it’s nothing that concerns the immediate safety of anyone).
  • Even if this technique does not result in confiscation 100% of the time, it reduces the undesired behavior from the rest of the class, as well as likely reduces additional incidences of extreme student behavior. As long as you follow through on your end, it shows other students that you follow through. Even though it might not get the most extreme students, most students do not want to get sent to the office (have parents called, etc) over a relatively minor scuffle. For my cases that were sent to the office, even when no severe “punishment” resulted, the students did not seem to think it’s worthwhile putting up the same fight in the future (I never had to send a kid to the office more than once). Even if these students thought it was worthwhile, other students notice that I do enforce my policies and they are less likely to use their phones in class. I have an average of one incident per day, and out of all these, I have never had to send more than one student to the office per year. Of course, your mileage may vary based on the myriad of variables between my classes and yours.


There are countless ways to respond to the situations addressed here. The system as presented is prioritized to be simple, straightforward, and require the least amount of distraction to you (especially for newer teachers or any teacher wrestling with classroom management).

This technique applies not just to confiscating cell phones, but many other basic actions we may ask of students, such as to change seats or take off their hat (but it’s not for asking students to stop doing something, like stop talking). In the end, it is about having control over your classroom atmosphere so that you can make it an environment you believe is conducive to student learning. Both teachers and students want the teacher to have control over the learning environment.

Leave a Comment!

Have you tried this or something similar? What worked? What didn’t?
What other situations have you had success with using this technique?
What are things you might need to do differently to make it work for your situation?

Speeding Cameras and Project Based Learning

This year I wanted to undertake Project Based Learning. I’ve attempted physics modeling the past couple years, and although it’s effective in many ways, I still feel there are more effective ways to engage my students and have them understand the concepts on a more “real life” basis (partially inspired by Dan Meyer’s blog post about authentic contexts). I figured I would try more authentic and engaging contexts, thus… projects. However, I found (and still find) PBL a bit intimidating because one of the keys of PBL is cross-curricular integration, and honestly, I wasn’t sure how physics integrated with the languages and humanities– at least authentically.

I don’t think I have a solution, but I may have found a starting point that at least gives me hope. Several weeks ago, I was inspired by an article about a man who fought several speeding tickets using basic physics (found on the Twitter/blogosphere).

“What a neat application!” I thought. Use pictures and time stamps to figure out how fast an object is moving. To solve for the speed of the truck, I needed more info on the truck, so who would know better than the man himself, Mr. Will Foreman (the accused). I found his e-mail address and sent him a message explaining who I am, what I was trying to do, and how he could help. His reply follows:


Yes, my company’s encounter with the speed cameras in the Town of Forest Heights Maryland could provide an interesting example for class. Sadly it might prove more valuable to a social studies, or civics class.

During my most recent visit to the courthouse I was contesting 15 citations. I was confident as the evidence was obvious and the law is quite clear. To my surprise, the evidence and the law didn’t matter. I experience first hand how our justice system “works” for the poor and uneducated. I was naive to think facts and the law matter. They do not. Money matters!

Judge Devlin treated me as though I had an extensive criminal record. I was guilty the moment I arrived in his court room. F. Lee Bailey could not have helped. I was threatened with contempt if I simply presented the photos from the citation. The same photos that are supposed to be the evidence against us. It was a very sad day.

I have been a victim of theft before. So-called customers and employees have stolen parts and cash. Never before have the perpetrators been in uniform or robes. That afternoon costs my company $937.50. It was a very sad day. I am appealing.

As far as the lengths of the vehicles, the red Ford Ranger is exactly 16 ft 6 in. Most garages are 20 ft deep. You can find the vehicle’s lengths on line with Wikipedia etc. Suffice it to say our delivery vehicles are between 16 – 18 ft.

Here is a link with some more photos. I put the distance required for validation.

Best of luck with your lesson.


Mr. Foreman’s reply helped me see a bigger picture. This is not just an application of physics, but it brings up the issue, “What role does science, math, and technology play in our legal/justice system? How can it be used to argue for against one’s innocence?” In trying to address the big issue on our mind, “So am I getting a ticket??”, Mr. Foreman’s reply also reminds me that this ties into issues beyond stating a case and backing it with evidence. The social issues become apparent. “If we can provide a persuasive argument using math and science, is that enough to make the changes we seek? How do we go about making social change? How do we become effective leaders???” The questions are endless! :oO I would have no idea how I would connect that to social studies, but I think it would at least create a good starting point for a conversation with a social studies, civics, leadership etc teacher.

I think situations like this help emphasize that much of what we do in math and science, especially in terms of problem-solving (word problems), are really tools we need for solving problems in a bigger picture (fighting a ticket, defending/prosecuting a suspect, making social change).


So… “What can you do with this?” At this point, my more concrete ideas are limited to physics applications. Some projects students can do regarding this context (refers to some resources, listed at the end of the post):

  • In my PowerPoint presentation, I show Mr. Foreman’s superimposed photo (sans attached data) and ask “Is it possible to calculate the speed of the car? If not, what else do we need to know?”. Let students brainstorm. More questions may pop up. “What’s that? Looks like we have more data here…” (next slide includes time data)

The media can be used as an assessment…

  • For a lower level analysis focusing on just the concept of constant velocity, present students with the speed camera photograph and give the prompt:
    “You are Mr. Foreman’s attorney. Use the photographic evidence to present a case to the judge, defending Mr. Foreman.”
    Remix: “The judge isn’t very well educated in math and science. (How does that change your presentation?)”
  • For higher level thinking, present them with the speed camera photograph, maybe the audio recording of the court hearing, and the information about the speed cameras from the manufacturer website, then give the prompt:
    “You are the judge. Based on the information and evidence available, do you think the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Why? In your argument, show that you weighed information from both sides.”

As for my own implementation of this, I introduced the scenario, then connected it to motion maps (a rough sequence can be seen on my PowerPoint presentation, also embedded above). I felt the students were “hooked” by the proposed scenario. As I delved further into the “content” the next few days, the connection seemed to weaken as an interesting context turned into interpreting diagrams, graphing, plugging things into equations, etc. I’d like to connect back to this context somehow in my summative  assessment (a relative term, in SBG) of this unit (constant velocity). Meanwhile, I’m also doing the quintessential constant velocity buggy labs. So far there’s little sign the students see connections between the things in this unit, and only seem to focus on one activity at a time, isolating the things they learn. Perhaps I’ll have them reflect on how everything we do can be applied to the speeding camera situation so they can strengthen those common threads.


Reflections on My First Year of SBG

This is my first year trying SBG (Standards Based Grading) after being inspired by a handful of teachers. (ddmeyer, jybuell, ThinkThankThunk, fnoschese) I taught five sections of physics this year and have used “traditional” grading prior to this year. So how do I feel about the switch?…

The good

  • I felt more focused by creating objectives and prioritizing objectives instead of like in the past, where I just throw things at them and “hope it sticks”. 90% of it sticks? “A” for you! 70% of it sticks? Even if none of it was a core idea? “C” for you!
  • Students were relatively on-task for most activities, considering nothing was actually “worth points”. I was afraid the first assignment of the year would be met by a conversation like this:
    S: How much is this worth?
    T: um… your grade is determined by quizzes and tests
    S: … so, nothing?
    T: …
    S: [sits back and stares at ceiling]
    But that never happened. Sure, I had students who didn’t do diddly squat, but based on my prior experiences, I’d say these students would have done no more work than if assignments were worth points.
    At first it was a bit difficult not having the crutch of threatening students with loss of points, but this only encouraged me to make my activities more meaningful and engaging, and eventually it was overall liberating not feeling like I had to “motivate” my students by dangling the points carrot in their faces.

The bad

  • Students focused on objectives by their labels (T3, CV2, EM4, etc.). I’m not sure they ever read the actual objective. So in their heads they were trying to “learn CV2” instead of “learn how to calculate the average velocity of an object”. Instead of learning what was described, they were learning “how to do those types of problems labeled CV2”.
  • Some or most students were motivated to remediate missed objectives, but it turned into a bunch of 1-on-1 tutoring sessions. I’ll need some way for them to remediate that’s not such a huge barrier that they would rather take the lower grade than relearn the material. Currently the only ways for them to remediate is to ask a friend (not a viable choice for everyone), ask me (takes up my time), or research on their own using the textbook or online resources (not going to happen). I’d like to create some accessible resources so if they do come to me for help, I can direct them to these resources. Or tell them if they’d like to re-assess, they must first offer evidence that they’ve gone over the resources.
  • Homework completion was still an issue, although it’s hard to say how much meaningful completion there was compared to when I had “traditional” grading. Second semester I tried a homework incentive system (complete/attempt more than 70% of assignments, +1 grade letter). No significant increase in number of students doing homework. Also, if they fell below 70%, it seemed like less incentive to do homework than before. I felt like since I started dangling the incentive system in front of their faces, this replaced any intrinsic motivation they might have had.
  • I’d like to have large and/or long-term assignments/projects. I think students can do short-term work in class (attempt a worksheet, whiteboard, do an activity) for no points, but I have serious doubts about students doing extended writing or any real “serious work” for no points.

Random notes

  • I started out with too many objectives each unit. I now try to combine them down to 6 for each unit/model so the list doesn’t seem daunting. I feel like long list lowers motivation (“so many things to learn!”).
  • I’ll keep the same formatting, which took a while to evolve into the current state. Objectives written at the top of each worksheet and assessment, and scores embedded in the objective list. (Another– although not great– reason for fewer objectives)


  • How do I assess projects and provide the proper motivation/incentives?
  • How do I assess students individually for projects?


I’ll never return to the old (traditional) grading system, which is relatively arbitrary and emphasizes points instead of learning. Although the “bad” list looks longer than the “good” list, the problems are less with the philosophy behind SBG, and more with my implementation of it this year. I will continue with the philosophy behind SBG, but I’ll need to adapt my implementation to how I plan to teach next year — with more projects, as activities and assessments (Project Based Learning is my next venture).

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