My Students Have My Mobile Number

Per the demands of an outdoorsy, running around-type review exercise, I gave my students my cell number two months back. Since then, I have received 23 unsolicited text messages. The first three were overly familiar, the sort you might call pranks, one of which read:

we’re your favorite students right. this is [name redacted].

These are the sort you just ignore. Accordingly, the next one read:

text back loser!!

The following twenty have each been scholarly, appropriately curious, and sent between a high school math teacher’s typical waking hours. They receive immediate response. A recent sample:

Whats the code for the Feltron project on excel, sum… Plus something?

Perhaps I dodged a bullet here. I’m pretty sure, though, that a lot of this was bound up in how I presented it: as an adult-type moment, access which they were free to squander if that’s how they wanted it, but which (I also told them) I had every reason to believe they’d enjoy responsibly.

Disincentive the negative. Reinforce the positive. Students are puppies.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. My oldest son’s 6th grade math teacher gave out her home phone number. Told them they could use it wisely, call before 9 pm, and that, of course, there was always a chance she wouldn’t be there.

    They were to call if they didn’t understand the homework to warn her or if they forgot what it was (this was the year before the district made an online homework page available to teachers).

    ‘Course this is the same teacher that called here one evening, just to tell us how much she enjoyed having our kid in her class. It’s amazing what one little phone call like that does to a parent’s perception of the teachers perceptiveness and intelligence. ;-D

  2. Do you know how many teachers would have marched into my office first thing in the morning after receiving, “text back loser,” to ask me what I was going to “do to” the student who sent it?

    Sheesh. Thank goodness cooler heads prevail somewhere…

  3. It’s mostly about relationships, a positive approach, recognizing the students make choices, and a bit of luck in maintaining appropriate boundaries.

    Teachers who ask the assistant principal what is going to be done about it are those whose beliefs are about controlling choice through power, and power / fear relationships, while often feeling powerless.

    This is what I’d expect from students, although it does get a little risky — I think transparency goes a long ways toward preventing problems: open access to all students for specific school related purposes.

  4. Yeah, well, Scott, I mean, I thought about contacting the phone company and setting up a backtrace to find the parent’s name, following that up with a data scoop to gather legally actionable data, and then baiting the student into namecalling me again.

    But then I realized I didn’t want to be yet another hypersensitive, reactionary d-bag on my student’s class schedule.

  5. Hello, Dan,

    RE: “Students are puppies.” and “But then I realized I didn’t want to be yet another hypersensitive, reactionary d-bag on my student’s class schedule.”

    No, Dan. YOU are the sweet adorable puppy, you big fluffy bag of love :p — How’s the end of the year going?

    All kidding aside, back in the dark ages when I taught, I also gave students my cell number, with the caveat that it should be used only for extreme emergencies. I also had a web site supporting all my classes, with all assignment info there, and a student-driven space for questions and answers, and the students knew to look there (and to each other) for basic support outside of class hours. I also got them in the habit of using the site to post questions they had (and wanted addressed) at the opening of class the next day.

    I had virtually no issues with crank calls/irresponsible use/inappropriate texting.



  6. “Disincentive the negative. Reinforce the positive. Students are puppies.”

    I just want to clarify this a bit. I presume you’re going for a Pavlov reference and classical conditioning. The trouble is you throw a little Skinner and operant conditioning (well, sort of anyway). He speaks of positive and negative reinforcements. Classical conditioning deals solely with stimuli, unconditioned, conditioned and so on.

    I almost took your last statement to jokingly say that this method allows one to “train” students. In a sense it does, just remember that this is solely a behavioral perspective and does nothing for the cognitive arena.

    And for what it’s worth, I call the parents of most of my students at the beginning of every quarter (I get new kids every nine weeks) and tell them how excited I am to have their kid in my class. They get my cell number on the caller ID. I get an occasional text, but nothing inappropriate.

    I think you’ll be good. What’s going to be cool is the kid five years from now who texts you from college graduation to say thanks.


  7. @ Dan,

    Right on. I gave out my cell number whenever I led Habitat for Humanity trips and never ever had a problem. Of course, those kids are self-selecting, but still…

    @ Bill,

    I’m stealing this. Thanks.

    a student-driven space for questions and answers, and the students knew to look there (and to each other) for basic support outside of class hours. I also got them in the habit of using the site to post questions they had (and wanted addressed) at the opening of class the next day.

    Seems simple and elegant, and I’m pretty much already set up for it.

  8. Dan,
    I too have had students gain access to my mobile phone number. I am proud to state that it has not be abused as of yet and has come in very handy as well. Students have texted me questions or ideas for class and have been nothing but helpful so far.
    For instance, when I was out at a workshop and the sub had a question, a student texted me and I was able to answer without disrupting the workshop that I was attending.
    Another example of proper usage is when the junior class was decorating for prom one evening and a student texted me asking to use a light that was located in my room.
    I can see the danger with the inappropriate student getting your number and abusing the privilege and this does worry me. So far it has been nothing by positive and I hope this continues.

  9. We’re warned around here that giving out our cell phone numbers borders on inappropriate and unprofessional, like driving a kid home that doesn’t have a ride.

    That being said, I give my cell number to my students and those I coach.

    And I walk to work.

  10. And not to be the party poopster, but have you blindly presumed that standard text messaging rates are of no monetary concern for your students or their families?

    Oh, spending and spending in a consumer-consumed era.

    There should be standard commenting rates on blogs.

  11. @ Jeff — steal away!

    This system really helped kids on the extremes of the spectrum — the very high achieving students who had some anxiety about getting things just right, and the students who would look for gray areas as a means of sidestepping expectations.

    For the more anxious students, being able to post a question that they knew would be addressed helped them relax — in the f2f class meetings, I both stressed that the site provided them a means of creating a placeholder that we could return to; and, of course, I would make a point of addressing questions asked on the web site during class.

    For students looking to find ways to sidestep work, it also simplified some of the conversations. A student would never be able to say that they didn’t know what was due, or that they didn’t understand the assignment. If they did, my response was, “Why didn’t you look at the web site, or post a question?” — these types of conversations also helped reinforce the student’s role in owning their own education.

    Of course, this is taking place against a backdrop where students have access to computers/internet. This would not fly in all schools.

  12. @Ken: standard text messaging rates?! Is it 2003 already? I don’t know a single one of my students yet to pick up an unlimited plan. Better hope the Tech Awareness Police, their School 2.0 badges all spit-polished, don’t stumble into this post.

  13. but honestly, we’ve hit a period where spending isn’t a consideration. I have a text messaging plan. Unlimited texting! Hooray for me! And only an additional 5.99 per month. Somewhere, that 72 dollars used to have a better home. Perhaps your demographics are different, but for some of my students, the notion of a texting plan runs counter to the get-food-on-the-table plan.

    but we presume a lot. we presume students have computers. we presume they have internet, and damn good internet, all fiber-optic and whiz-bang fast.

    we’re 2.0-ing our schools w/ the underlying assumption that our students’ home lives are miles ahead. we believe our schools need to play catch-up.

    I worry about our belief system. I’ll txt u bout it :()

  14. You confuse me with someone who isn’t likewise concerned that the future-of-ed crowd has grossly overestimated the importance of read/write-web tools to a student’s development and underestimated (grossly, again) the financial & time cost of those tools.

  15. no, i don’t think i’ve done that. i’m well read on your views about r/w web stuff.

    but i’ve might have done the latter. but i always try to avoid ‘grossly’ over/under-estimating. it’s an ugly character trait.

    sorry 4 the lack of caps here…twin baby girls…one in each arm.

    typing tuff

  16. I only give my cell number to Ken and he always sends me texts that read “Text back loser”. I don’t want to be a LOSER! So, I text back with “LOL, Y R U MEAN?”

  17. I wonder if the text messaging function could be harnessed in a more constructive and educational manner. I believe the technology is there (blogging, classroom clickers, instant messaging), we just need to use it to receive text messages from students and organize them in a meaningful way to make a coherent record of a classroom conversation. For those students who don’t have a cell phone or text service, a school palm device could be loaned for that class period that does the same thing. Of course there needs be a myraid of things that would need to be mediated before something like this would be practical and affordable.

    Face it, many students would rather have the annonymity of a text message than speaking in class. But at what expense?

  18. I agree with the masses here, Dan. Your ability to pull this one off started at the beginning of the year, by building mutual respect and a congenial rapport with the kids. You just get it.

  19. As tempted as I am to leap into the r/w web debate or the “wow, my kids texted me” wunderlust trend here, I can’t help but believe that all that Dan is speaking about hinges on a (re)formation of the “culture” of schooling.

    At the scale of one teacher

    — i.e. Dan’s choice at the beginning of the year to define a relationship with his students that allow for kids to shift from pseudo low-level prank messages to a genuine desire to have Q’s from class answered on the fly via their ‘cellie’ —

    or at the scale of an entire school model

    — i.e. independent schools have historically allowed their students/families to have access to their teacher’s home telephone #’s with an extra caveat that they be used appropriately from Sept-summer —

    this is ‘culture’ design issue.

    As Dan’s post reminds me, our ability to teach(and lead schools) in meaningful/engaging ways in the decades to come does not hinge inherently on ‘expertise’ or ‘technology’. Both good stuff, to be sure. But ultimately, they are merely tools.

    Culture (based on respect and legit relationships), on the other hand, gives us a fighting shot of remaining relevant. And doing the right thing on behalf of our kids and communities in the process.

  20. If your students want to use their mobile phones for learning so badly :) check out It’s a classroom response system using text messages, for under 10% of the cost of classroom clickers. Admittedly, it’s only going to be embraced by districts with a progressive attitude about cell phones as learning devices.

  21. I’m trying to remember why this backfired last year. Last year I received phone calls nightly, pornographic picture messages – basically, flip that 20/3 ratio on its head. (I probably shoulda disclosed all this in the original post.)

    That was a special crowd of pranksters and stalkers, truly, but it’s significant that when they asked the question, “You aren’t worried about giving us your number?” I said:

    Psh. I have some pretty solid call blocking software.

    Rather than:

    I have every reason to believe you’ll enjoy this access responsibly.

    High expectations aren’t a cure-all. Unsupported by positive classroom culture, pushed consistently over a year, they’re recipes for disappointment.

    I’m not theorizing that the difference between high/low expectation accounts entirely for the difference between this year and the last, but I know it’s significant that, somehow, in both years, both classes met them fully.

  22. Hello, Dan,

    Did you really say, “Psh. I have some pretty solid call blocking software.” ?

    To a student (hell, to *me*), that sounds an awful lot like “Let’s see if we can get this to break!”

    Yet another reason why internet filtering technology and cell phone bans are so successful.



  23. “Yet another reason why internet filtering technology and cell phone bans are so successful.”

    Wow! What a statement. Not my cup of tea, but to each their own.

    My opinion is that we are educators because we want to teach students something. Whether that be history, math, or whatever. In my case, I teach Industrial Technology (Shop Class). I consider it part my job to teach the procedures and understand how to safely use the tools and equipment before I turn them loose.

    Who is teaching them how to properly and productively use the internet? Who is teaching them to use their cell phones properly and productively? In most cases, no one. Does that mean that they students are not using them, heck no. Once they leave school their cell phones are out and in action. At home, most have unfiltered internet.

    As an educational system, I really think that we are missing out on teaching some basic skills that many of our students are missing.

    Is the answer to filter the internet and ban cell phones, maybe. In my opinion we should be opening these up, teaching their proper usage and show the students how powerful these tools can be.

    Just my 2 cents, keeps the change ;)

  24. Sorry,
    Don’t know Bill and I didn’t see the customary ;) or j/k that usually refers to typed sarcasm. Now I know:) It was just nice to go on a rant for a few minutes that actually made sense (to me anyways).

    Keep up the posts! It is very interesting watching the dialog as it comes in. I will be on the lookout for sarcasm in the future;)

  25. @Evan — my emoticons all took the day off — I suspect they’re gallivanting over the countryside using up their quota of messages on their texting plan.

    RE: “Don’t know Bill” — ask anyone who does, they’ll all probably agree that it’s better that way :)

    But all kidding aside, in the interest of setting the record straight, when I worked as a tech director at the K12 level, I started/ran a couple of laptop programs, with no internet filtering. As you might imagine, this led to some interesting conversations with parents. My position: if you don’t have the option to do the unwise thing, you can never learn how to choose the better path. This was in independent schools, and I had the benefit of a Head of School who was on the same philosophical page.

    And this was backed up with training, reinforcement, cajoling, etc.



  26. Dan, the man. Me and thomas are slaving deep into the night, working on La feltron. But what ev’.

    See you 3rd.