Skip to content

A Teacher Did All He Could to Keep Kids Off Phones. He’s Quitting in Frustration.

Originally posted on WSJ on 5/18/24 by Julie Jargon. Photographs by Matt Martian.

Mitchell Rutherford faced a crisis of conidence as smartphones took over his Arizona classroom and students lost the motivation to learn

Mitchell Rutherford has taught biology at a public high school for 11 years. He’s quitting after this semester because he’s tired of trying to engage students who are lost in their phones.  

Schools are losing teachers for a variety of reasons, and phones factor into decisions to leave. Dozens of teachers have told me they spend more time policing kids’ phone use than they do teaching. For Rutherford—a 35-year-old teacher who once embraced technology— seeing kids checked out and, in his view, addicted, robbed him of the joy of teaching.

Behavioral problems and absenteeism have been problems since students returned to Sahuaro High School in Tucson, Ariz., after pandemic closures. Back then Rutherford left campus exhausted every day, but felt kids were relearning how to socialize.

At the start of this school year, the students seemed much better behaved, leading Rutherford and fellow teachers to think they had finally turned a corner. But the students’ quietude masked deeper discontent.

Students would put on headphones in class and tune out, saying it helped ease their anxiety, he says. “There was this low-energy apathy and isolation.”

By October, half his students were failing his class. They didn’t want to be at school, they told him, and didn’t care about their grades. Rutherford himself grew anxious and depressed. “I was beginning to think I was the problem,” he says.

Screenshot 2024-05-20 at 10.38.50 AM

He became convinced the real culprit was phones. The school’s policy says phones shouldn’t be out during class, but enforcement is left to teachers. Students would usually put phones away when asked, before the pandemic. 

“Now, you can ask them, bug them, beg them, remind them and try to punish them and still nothing works,” he says.

A growing number of teachers, psychologists and lawmakers say smartphones and social media are sapping kids’ motivation and well-being. The argument that technology is creating mental-health problems for teens has become controversial, with skeptics describing the fuss over smartphones as a moral panic.

A millennial and digital native, Rutherford used to think technology had a place in the classroom and that students could be taught to manage their phone use. This year showed him the grim truth.

Screenshot 2024-05-20 at 10.41.01 AM

Rutherford has tried numerous things to get his students to engage with the real world, including meditation and nature walks.

‘If you stop policing, it backslides’ 
On the first day of class last August, he asked students to place their phones in a basket. Half of them did. By the third day, only a quarter did. Eventually, the basket remained empty.

In an effort to show kids how much better they’d feel without their phones, he took his students on nature walks, taught them mindfulness and meditation techniques and taught a unit on the importance of sleep. “I was employing all the tools in the tool belt, and more than half the class didn’t seem to be trying at all,” he says.

Rutherford says he was careful not to blame his students for their phone dependency. He explained to them that the apps were designed to be addictive and taught units on the neurobiology of addiction.

“I would walk up to kids and say, ‘Give me your phone,’ and they would clutch it, and I would say that’s what an alcoholic would do if you tried to take away their bottle,” he says.
He voiced his frustration to teachers and administrators every chance he got. Other teachers agreed something needed to be done about phones, and some shared methods they’d tried. One teacher deducts participation points for students who use their phones in class. Another tells students to leave their phones in their backpacks, which are to be
placed at the front of the classroom.
Screenshot 2024-05-20 at 10.46.49 AM
The methods work so long as teachers are on top of it. “If at any point you stop policing it, it backslides immediately,” Rutherford says. 
Sahuaro High’s principal, Roberto Estrella, says he wants to develop a more consistent schoolwide approach so that students know what to expect in every classroom. Teachers and staff in June will start developing a schoolwide plan for student phone use for the fall, he says, but it won’t involve a ban.

Banning phones outright would require school board approval and parent buy-in. Parents in many districts have been pushing back against phone bans.
Rutherford gave notice in February that he wouldn’t return next year. He’s hoping to land a job with an online college-prep school or at a vocational program for high-school students. His goal is to teach teens who are more motivated and better able to set aside their phones during instruction.
His detox challenge
In Rutherford’s last month at Sahuaro High, he has challenged his students to a digital detox.
They’re supposed to cut their phone use and replace that time with a non-screen hobby. The assignment, including a written report reflecting on the experience, counts as a lab grade.
The initial results have surprised him. “Some of my kids who care the least about grades are coming up and showing me how much they’ve reduced their screen time,” he says.
Before the detox Isabel Richey, a senior in Rutherford’s AP biology class, was spending six hours a day on her phone, most of it watching TikTok. “I would go on my phone at the beginning of every class and never get off,” she says.

She’s now down to about an hour a day, and has read nine novels since starting the detox. She’s also been doing homework in long chunks, without breaking to watch TikTok every 10 minutes. She says she’s in a better mood and feels less stress.

“I can completely understand why Mr. Rutherford is tired of trying to get through to students,” she says. “I’m surprised more of my teachers haven’t been pushed to that point.”

The students’ embrace of the detox challenge has given Rutherford hope, and some regret about leaving.

“Part of me feels like I’m abandoning these kids. I tell kids to do hard things all the time and now I’m leaving?” he says. “But I decided I’m going to try something else that doesn’t completely consume me and drain me.”