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We never thought we’d be Instagram teachers. But here we are, watching our ideas spread on online forums. Social media has given educators an accessible and user-friendly platform to share thoughts about all things education. Without proper funding, professional development opportunities are rare, and so educators, including us, are seeking out their own learning opportunities by connecting with like-minded professionals online. We run an Instagram account called Gentle Teachers (@gentle.teachers), where we rethink common teaching practices. Through our account, we’ve been able to support and learn alongside other educators who are trying to teach students in emotionally responsive ways. While Instagram and Facebook are full of great ideas, we’ve noticed some trends that have us realizing we need to stop and think critically about the “classroom hacks” we see online.

The Tattle Phone is one of these trends.

What exactly is a Tattle Phone?

The idea is simple on the surface. An educator introduces a nonfunctioning phone into the classroom. Usually, these are overly stylized rotary phones (as if kids know how to use those!) or the big, clunky, corded phones popular in the ’90s. The educator then explains to the class that if they need to tell someone, they can talk to the phone (unless it’s an emergency, of course).

Variations of this trend include the “Tattle monster” or a “Tattle Toy,” where a stuffed animal takes the place of the phone. Typically there are parameters set around what constitutes an emergency. “Only come to me if it’s about barfing, bleeding, bullying, or bathroom needs.” Once set up, anytime an educator feels like a student is tattling, they can redirect them to the Tattle Phone, and voila! So ends the problem of listening to kids tattle on each other all day long. Sounds great, right? Surely with online comments like “This is a great idea!” and “I can’t stand the tattling in my room. Excited to try this!”, we know this hack must address a common problem and be worthwhile.

Why We Don’t Support Tattle Phones

But here’s where we take issue with Tattle Phones. While it can be extremely challenging to listen to so many little people tattle on each other all day long, we worry that asking a child to direct their concerns to an inanimate object sends a message of dismissiveness from the educator. If we think of ourselves as adults, when we have a problem, the last thing we would want is to be dismissed or told to go tell it to a non-functional phone. By using things like tattle phones, we inadvertently tell students that we have neither the time nor the space to hear their concerns unless it is a “big” or “real” problem. Here in Ontario, we have kids in our kindergarten program who are as young as three years old. To ask a three-year-old to sort through the size of a problem or whether it fits neatly into a category (is someone bleeding, barfing, bullying, etc.) can be very overwhelming.

Now, it is also possible that Tattle Phones came to be as a way of fostering independent problem-solving. A big part of teaching is helping our students build independence and self-reliance and work towards figuring things out on their own. But if our goal as educators is to help students by fostering an environment where they can practice these skills, we would argue that a Tattle Phone is not actually helping students build independent problem-solving skills at all. Talking to a Tattle Phone does not build problem-solving strategies or increase a student’s ability to resolve an issue independently the next time. We, the educators, do that. We teach students about the problem-solving process. We help students practice those skills. We show students that they have the tools to deal with conflicts. And we are the ones that students seek out when they are confused, upset, hurt, etc. We are the ones students should be tattling to.

These little people are working so hard to learn about the rules of the classroom, the school, and the world. So it’s only natural that when they see something that doesn’t line up with these rules, they want to tell the educator/authority figure immediately. When you factor in how many times a day that can happen for one child, much less for every child in your class, it must be hundreds of times a day that we encounter tattling. No wonder we are so tired at the end of the day! But the good news is, by reframing our perception of tattling and choosing to see those moments as teaching opportunities, or moments of connection, we have found that while the frequency of tattling remains the same, the amount of educator support has gradually been able to decrease.

Our Alternative to a Tattle Phone

When a child tattles to us, here are some things that we might do and say:

Acknowledge: We let the children know that we hear them, especially if it’s a small-to-an-adult but big-to-a-child problem. The students often just need the educator to hear them out. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple “Thanks for letting me know” or even saying “Okay.”

Validate: Especially when the child doing the tattling perceives that there has been an injustice done, no matter what we adults think, we try to always validate the child’s feelings. For example, “It is really hard when someone says you can’t play with them. That can feel really unfair.” Or “It sounds like your feelings were hurt when he stuck his tongue out at you.”

Problem-solve: We may use this opportunity to support students in solving the problem so that they can eventually problem-solve with greater independence. We might ask, “What can you do to solve that problem?” or “How can I help you?” Or if they are tattling on behalf of someone else, we might say, “You can tell [other student’s name] to come and talk to me.”

So how did we get here?

It’s pretty simple. Teachers are tired. This generation of post-COVID students is like none we’ve ever taught before. The social skills are lagging, resulting in an inability to problem-solve independently and, you guessed it, more tattling. With growing responsibilities in the classroom and fewer supports, we understand why educators would jump on simple “hacks” like the Tattle Phone. Addressing tattling can take up a lot of precious teaching time, which is already compromised by behavioral outbursts, assessments, and any new initiatives the government decides we need to implement. The reality is, teaching children how to resolve problems, build social skills, and communicate effectively with their peers, is something that should be emphasized in every curriculum at every grade level. Instead, educators feel the push to brush these skills to the side in favor of higher math and literacy scores.

If you’ve used the Tattle Phone as a strategy in your classroom, we don’t blame you. We know that you are a good teacher going through a hard time and doing the best you can for your students.

Our goal on Gentle Teachers is always to share, not shame. If you’re able and willing to make a change, no matter how small, know we’re on that path with you. We’re hopeful that if you’re feeling ready, you’ll hang up the tattle phone and refocus on what is most important- building a classroom environment where students feel validated and heard by a real, loving person.

Avery and Alannah are French Immersion Kindergarten Teachers in Ontario, Canada. With 16 years of teaching experience between them, they have been working to think critically about education and question the “traditional” ways of teaching. Avery solidified her love of the early years by becoming a Kindergarten specialist. Alannah chose to focus on early childhood education during her Master’s degree. In their spare time, they run the Instagram account @gentle.teachers where they share their learning about adopting a gentle approach to teaching young students. 

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