Iowa teacher: "communication junkies" need more self-discipline in class

Gail Wortmann works with a student as she works on a Rube Goldberg machine (a complicated gadget that performs a simple task) in physical science class. Photo published with permission from the Bloomfield Democrat.

Karen Spurgeon is publisher of the Bloomfield Democrat, a Davis County newspaper where this article first appeared.

Gail Wortmann has had an exceptional career as a science teacher, but when she agreed to finish out the semester for a Davis County science teacher who left the school system on short notice, she found herself spending more time on disciplining and less on teaching than ever before in her career.

“One of my major concerns is the amount of time spent disciplining students who are good kids in our community—kids I like,” she said. “However, they seem to believe school is a social club, not a place of learning.

“If I want them to get off their phones, or stop talking so I may address the room to teach a concept, I have to interrupt them. I have to yell over them or ring a doorbell I purchased with my own money to signal I want everyone to stop talking.”

Wortmann said students know they have to put their phones away at the beginning of class, but every day she has to command them to do this.

She is calling for parents or caretakers to work with their students on being self-disciplined. “No matter what age your student is, it is not the teacher’s job to make them do anything. It is the student’s job to pay attention and learn so the teacher can teach,” she said. “I am not a teacher who lacks classroom control but I can’t fight a roomful of talkers all day long.

“They are communication junkies. They are either texting or constantly visiting with their classmates. If I try to explain something and they have a comment to make, they turn toward their listener, start a conversation and miss the rest of my explanation completely. This happens all the time.

“I’ve not really had problems with classroom management in the past,” she recalled. “I always made sure my lessons were interesting enough to capture students’ attention.”

Wortmann began her teaching career in 1973 as a high school science teacher at Davis County. She went on to teach science at Evans Junior High in Ottumwa, Ottumwa High School, and Buena Vista University.

Though she retired from public school classrooms in 2004, she continued to teach online classes and was called to serve as an adjunct science professor at Iowa Wesleyan University. She has also continued to sub for grades 3-12 in the Davis County Schools.

Wortmann’s six-page resume lists numerous awards bestowed throughout her career including the designation of “Iowa Teacher of the Year” in 2001. She spent the 2002-2003 school year on sabbatical as she served as Iowa’s Ambassador for Education.

As an award-winning teacher, Wortmann surveyed the students in the chemistry, physical science, and conceptual science classes she began subbing for in November. She learned they clearly wanted hands-on instruction with lab experiences.

“That takes planning, materials, and independently designed instruction,” she commented. “I’m spending four or five hours a night in preparation.”

Wortmann said the students are listening to her a “little bit, but they are communication junkies.

“I have never been in classrooms before where they talk all the time and distract others. They turn around and quip to someone while I’m talking.

“These are kids who feel it is more important to be funny than to learn.”

Wortmann commented her least favorite words from students have become “Well, I was just…”

She counters with “I don’t care why you were doing what you were doing. STOP! That’s giving me a reason why you think you should be excused for your behavior.”

Wortmann doesn’t feel the students who are being raised well are being purposely disrespectful. “I think this comes down to the communication junkies they have become now that they have a device in their hands. A constant stream of words is where we’re going now,” she commented.

“For decades I taught upper-level science classes and they were different. The kids were motivated and they were learning relevant things.

“I want the kids to get better, and I’m sure their family members/caregivers want them to be better as well.”

Wortmann’s concerns are not just for the future of the students, but for the future of the teaching profession as well.

“When they (teachers) have to discipline more than they get a chance to teach, they will look elsewhere to make a living,” she said.

Tags: Education, news

About the Author(s)

Karen Spurgeon

  • I'm concerned for the future in general

    Some research indicates devices may be, in a sense, rewiring human brains, and indicates that devices are having impacts on everything from sleep patterns to creativity.

    From Harvard University’s SCIENCE IN THE NEWS:

    “I feel tremendous guilt,” admitted Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, to an audience of Stanford students. He was responding to a question about his involvement in exploiting consumer behavior. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he explained.


    Expecting even really good teachers to compete with dopamine bursts is asking a lot.

  • Rewired Minds

    You want to know why the kids won’t put the phones down? (
    From 1987 until 1998 computers were an unbelievable resource for bright teachers in supportive schools. Once Ethernet allowed you to connect to the outside world (and once dot com got in) the battle for young minds was lost. Teacher Wortman is sadly correct. She notes the rewiring of young minds but I’ve witnessed a similar rewiring of lawmakers minds as well.

  • everyone's a pundit now

    the tech amplifies these issues but there are more fundamental sociological trends at play. Across even the political divide we’ve come to a place where people feel like they have expertise in matters about which they know little to nothing and have even less experience with. And no small part of this is due to failures of our education system to teach students something like epistemological humility, to understand enough to know how little they understand and now they are grandparents, parents, and other role models for a grandiosity that when merged with current social media is well beyond the means of teachers, social workers, psychologists, or even often parents, to police.