How To Grow Eyes in the Back of Your Head

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

This is what Mr. Weber was saying to his students just as I walked into the back of his mostly-settled classroom.

What he said made three things happen. Holly pocketed the note she was about to pass, Jennifer stuffed a unchewed stick of gum back into her bag, and Josiah crumpled the straw he had smuggled from the cafeteria to use as a paper-wad launch.

How could Mr. Weber have known about the straw launcher and the gum and the note? His back to the class, he had been writing an algebraic equation on the chalkboard.

It turns out, he hadn’t known.

“I just sensed something in the air,” he told me later. “I figured my warning would land justly on someone.”

Having eyes in the back of your head—this is what students call this uncanny ability to be aware of what seems to be hidden.

Educators call it “with-it-ness.”

Effective classroom management, Mr. Weber taught me, is not so much how teachers deal with misconduct as how well they prevent it.

Mr. Weber used a lifeguard approach. Lifeguards are trained to spot early signs of danger: panicked looks and flailing arms and vertical positions. And by acting in good time, they forestall crisis.

So how can teachers grow eyes in the backs of their heads? Here are some strategies I learned from Mr. Weber:

  • Watch as students’ faces as they enter. Then respond to what you see. The squeeze of a shoulder, the offer of a corner nook, a calming word, a note dropped on a desk, all these can avert trouble.
  • When you can, keep turned toward the action. When Mr. Weber conferenced with a student, he positioned himself so he could see the rest of the class. When students were testing or writing, he sat at the back of the room, where his eyes were on them and theirs weren’t on him.
  • Move throughout the classroom. Never knowing where Mr. Weber would show up, students stayed engaged instead of acting up.

Mr. Weber might have been known for the eyes in the back of his head. But when students talked about him, their voices held more admiration than grumble.

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