I’m a High School Teacher. Here’s How the Parents of My Students Make It Impossible for Them to Focus.

Recently, one of my ninth grade English students told me her parents rewarded her for making the honor roll by allowing her to text them during class. “They like to know what I’m doing in the classroom as it’s happening live,” she said.

“We have a cellphone policy,” I reminded her.

“I know,” she said, “but you can always break it to message your parents.”

My student was partly right. Emergencies happen. Parents want access to their kids. But this wasn’t an emergency. “When my dad texts and asks me how I am,” another ninth grader said, “he gets worried if I don’t message back immediately.” Her friend said: “My mom expects a text each class period so she knows what I’m doing.”

These examples are not exceptions. They happen every day.

I teach at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois, a large, highly ranked suburban high school that serves a diverse student population. As of the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which is from 2020, 76.9 percent of American public schools have cellphone policies. That includes ours—at my school, phones are to be put away before students enter the classroom.

A University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital poll reported that the No. 1 concern for parents in 2023 was excessive screen time. Yet many expect constant contact with their kids during class, even if they’re aware of school cellphone policies, and school officials point to parents as the main obstacle to banning phones in schools. If these two facts seem incompatible to you, you’re not alone. We teachers are right there with you.

Some parents of kids in my class watch the screens of their kids’ school-issued Chromebooks remotely when they’re in class. “My mom wants to know I’m not playing video games,” a student said. Many parents are so tightly tethered to their kids it’s as though they’re sitting in our classrooms with us. And it’s not only through screens. Some of them contact us about schoolwork so their kid doesn’t have to. A student told me he saw no reason to talk to me about an assignment he was struggling with “because I know my mom is going to email you about it for me.”

I think what’s not getting across to parents is that school isn’t a livestream. And it’s for students, not their parents. The incessant monitoring is disrupting the learning environment and violating the sacred space of the classroom.

Certain parents have already, quite publicly, insinuated themselves deeply into schools, leading to a push for book bans in 33 states, closing libraries, and limiting classroom discussions on race, gender, and sexuality. Parental classroom surveillance through student phones and laptops, which is something both liberal and conservative parents may do, is a less discussed manifestation of this trend. But it can have a similar effect, preventing students from forming critical thoughts of their own and inhibiting their growth.

Of course, one reason parents are surveilling their children so much is because they’re worried about their mental health. In addition to screen time, other top parent concerns include anxiety, depression, and bullying, according to a 2022 Pew Research study. Parents are also concerned about school shootings. (That group of parents might be interested to hear that security experts find the idea of kids using their personal cellphones during an active-shooter incident to be quite concerning.)

Educators are worried too. An EdWeek Research Center poll revealed that 88 percent of us see a deterioration in students’ classroom behavior—their ability to focus, their executive skills, their heightened anxiety and depression, and an escalation in violent behavior—when they have increased screen time.

Parents might mean well, but the surveillance is hurting kids. School is supposed to be a place where students get distance—learn to be away from home—as they grow and figure out whom they are becoming. The classroom is a place where they learn to formulate arguments, back them up, write and rewrite, think through problems, make mistakes, and try again. It’s what poet Tom Wayman called “a microcosm of human experience / assembled for you to query and examine and ponder.”

This distinction between home and school exists to help teenagers think for themselves. Yet some students are not getting the gift of experiencing this separation.

A few months ago, one of my students sneakily took a picture of a spelling quiz and sent it to his mother. Ten minutes later—students were still taking the quiz—I received an email from her asking why I had given it and if he could, instead, take it the next day “so he can review more.”

The student hadn’t prepared for the quiz and was understandably anxious. He’d also been trained that his mom would take care of it for him. But as soon as she took over, the opportunity for him to work through his frustration was gone. If he had experienced the natural consequence of being unprepared, chances are he would have studied for the next time. The lesson available to him could have been greater than studying for one quiz. He didn’t learn it.

Educators don’t mind when parents contact us with questions. We want good communication with families, and we hope our students share what they are doing in school. But the increased parental surveillance has blurred the boundaries between home and school so much that students are not developing into independent thinkers.

Students whose Chromebooks are monitored by their parents are also not as invested in their work as they could be. They may be less likely to play Minecraft in class, but they’re also less likely to let their thoughts wander when they brainstorm in a draft because they know that their parents are watching them.

The classroom is so important that even during lockdown, when we were remote, teachers tried to duplicate the physical space. Students played games in the Zoom chat, shared their screens to show presentations they created, and led discussions. Yet, some parents still violated the sanctity of the classroom by surveilling their kids.

One day, during that time, a mother of one of my students sent me an email. The subject line, in all caps, read, “I CAN HEAR EVERYTHING AND I DON’T LIKE IT.”

We were discussing Romeo and Juliet. Her email quoted things students had shared about whether they believe in love at first sight and if they think that love lasts forever. It was the liveliest discussion they’d had all year. With everyone stuck at home—and given the increased mental health concerns during the pandemic—I was glad my students were eager to talk about relationships and human connections in the cyber world we’d created together. I never fully understood why the parent didn’t “like” what she heard. It didn’t matter. Our classroom wasn’t for her.

Her son barely spoke in class after that. I tried to encourage him, but his mother was right there with us, having scolded both teacher and student.

Lockdown gave parents a front-row seat to our virtual classes and made it easy for them to monitor their kids. Even though we’ve been back in person for several years, they haven’t left.

This past semester, another student violated the cellphone policy by FaceTiming with her mother in our classroom minutes after receiving a grade she didn’t like on a paper. I was about to conference with each student. Since the mother had already talked with her daughter, this student, like the one who had taken a photo of the spelling quiz, refused to talk with me about it. The mother told her daughter to tell me to call her immediately, even though she knew we were in the middle of class.

After school that day, I called the parent on her phone from my phone, to talk about her daughter who had been FaceTiming on her phone in class with her mother—whom I was now talking with, and who had told her daughter, on the phone, to tell me to phone her during class. (“It sounds like a version of ‘Who’s on First?’ ” a colleague joked, when I tried to explain what had happened. “Who is on first?” I asked. “Our students or their parents?”)

I made no headway with this mother. I told her we have a cellphone policy and explained that phones take away from our classroom community. “Community?” she asked, then, before I could answer, told me it was “perfectly fine” for her to be in contact with her daughter throughout the day “because she needs me.”

Teachers and parents used to partner together in the development of children, each of us with a vital and valued role in our communities. Now it often seems we are at cross-purposes.

It’s not too late. We can still collaborate on a unified vision with healthy boundaries designed for kids to grow into independent thinkers. Together, we can restore the classroom to the sacred place it should be, the “microcosm of human experience” Wayman wrote about, assembled for all students to “query and examine and ponder.”

Some parents are very supportive of the classroom environment and don’t want their children on phones when they are in class. A few parents have told me they are “old-school,” that they don’t want contact with their kids during the day, not only because of phones but also so they can get a break from each other—kids at school, parents at work—until later, when they see each other and can share about their day. There’s also a parent-led movement pushing for cellphone bans in schools.

If we don’t all work together, our students won’t be prepared for the adult world. Or they’ll reshape it into the surveillance state they are getting used to, where they won’t know what it feels like to take risks or be imaginative or spontaneous because their whole lives have become a recorded livestream.

And education will just get stranger.