A long time ago, in a training course far, far away, I was taught never to turn my back to the class, even when writing on the board.
My trainer was very specific about how we had to stand when using the board so we could keep an eye on what was happening in the room. He was right – I remember as a kid knowing it was safe to start pea-shoot fights only when the teacher was busy with her board work.
Having had the don’t-turn-your-back-to-the-class drilled into me as a novice teacher, I was in awe of Miss Sidley in Stephen King’s short horror story ‘Suffer the Little Children’. Here’s how it opens:
She was a small woman who had to stretch to write on the highest level of the blackboard, which she was doing now. Behind her, none of the children giggled or whispered or munched on secret sweets held in cupped hands. They knew Miss Sidley's deadly instincts too well. Miss Sidley could always tell who was chewing gum at the back of the room, who had a bean-shooter in his pocket, who wanted to go to the bathroom to trade baseball cards rather than use the facilities. Like God, she seemed to know everything all at once.
With her ‘deadly instinct’, Miss Sidley “could turn her back to her pupils with confidence.” Writing on the board and still maintaining absolute control over the class - what a super-power!
Can a non-fiction, non-horror teacher like you or I develop this skill? Is this a gift, or a simple set of tricks we can all learn?
Also a long time ago, educational psychologist Jacob Kounin took an interest in successful classroom management, conducted extensive research on it, and published his influential book ‘Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms’. In it, he describes five characteristics of teachers who have effective classroom management. One of these was something he called ‘withitness’.
Withitness is the teacher’s capacity to be aware of the what’s going on in all parts of the classroom. This is the ‘eyes in the back my head’ effect. Miss. Sidley has withitness in spades.
Kounin’s term may not be well known, but the concept certainly is. There are examples of it all over the place. In action movies, the withit protagonist seems to know exactly where each of his opponents are with absolute precision. Let’s have an example. In Fists of Fury, Bruce Lee is up against an impossibly large number of assailants, but keeps track of each one without trouble
Is that too scripted for you? Ok, watch Lebron James keeps track of each of his team-members so he can make these amazing no-look passes.
Now it’s unlikely that teachers are beset by Kung Fu evil-mongers who are trying to kill them, but still, it ought to be clear that keeping an eye on how everything is going in the class has benefits.
A withit teacher can see when students are not paying attention, which students can’t follow the lesson, when students are becoming restless. This awareness acts as an early warning system to short-circuit upcoming management problem, backup and reexplain, start an activity that engages the class, or something of the sort.
Evidence from classroom research (such as this study [PowerPoint Presentation] by Richard Watson Todd at KMUTT) shows that teachers who exhibit withitness are more likely to be considered effective by the students.
Withitness doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Some teachers like to get right up close to the student who needs extra support, for instance. That’s helpful for that one student perhaps, but problematic when the teacher begins to ignore what’s happening in the rest of the room. Some teachers take much care with their boardwork, but that means they aren’t aware that Steve keeps pea-shooting Laura. Some teachers teach only one side of the classroom, or only the one student who already knows the material.
There are some tricks, though – arrange the classroom to maximize eye contact across the classroom, move around the room and actively monitor, use your peripheral vision, don’t teach only the front-row students who pay attention, direct questions to students who appear to have lost focus, and never turn your back to the class, even when you’re writing on the board.