Almost everyone has had at least one teacher who was able to simultaneously write notes on the board and tell students in the back of the room to stop making faces at each other. And most of us also have had a few teachers who were oblivious to what was happening right in front of them. Teachers who are not aware of what’s going on in their classes—students’ passing notes, cheating, or even bullying classmates—have to cope with far more discipline issues than those teachers who are said to have “with-it-ness.” No one is born with the trait of with-it-ness; it is a carefully cultivated approach to classroom management that makes academic and behavioral success possible.
Educational researcher Jacob Kounin first coined the term “with-it-ness” in his 1977 book Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms, published by R. E. Krieger. What is with-it-ness? Simply put, it means that a teacher knows what’s going on in class all the time. This continual awareness allows a teacher to manage the competing demands of a classroom while keeping every student on task.
As a method of preventing classroom discipline problems, with-it-ness is crucial. Teachers who are alert to what their students are doing are far more likely to be able to prevent or minimize problems; they are tuned in to all their students rather than checking email or dealing with just one student while ignoring nearby students who also may be misbehaving.
They are also the teachers who have positive relationships with their students. While positive relationships are valuable for a variety of reasons, these connections often allow a teacher to predict student behavior. Knowledge of students, constant vigilance and the ability to imagine what could go wrong in classroom situations combine to proactively prevent or minimize misbehavior.
Teachers who have honed their with-it-ness skills know that it’s not enough just to actively supervise their students. What is important is that the teachers make their vigilance obvious to their students in many subtle ways—a nod, a friendly smile, a puzzled frown, or proximity. Letting students know that you are aware of their behavior often convinces them that misbehavior is just not worth the trouble.
With-it-ness is easy to master with just a bit of care and effort. Here are some simple tips for cultivating your sense of with-it-ness when dealing with your students in a whole group situation.
- Don’t ever turn your back on a class. Not ever.
- Use student arrival time to pay attention to students’ emotions. This will allow you to predict and defuse situations such as a conflict between students, angry outbursts or more-than-usual distractions.
- As quickly as you can, learn your students’ strengths, weaknesses, quirks and preferences. This knowledge will make it easier for you to predict their behavior.
- Develop your personal multitasking skills. Teachers with the ability to overlap their attention find it easier to monitor classes. For example, teachers who take attendance with a quick glance around the room at the start of class while students are working on independent warm-up activities will experience fewer problems than those teachers who waste several minutes calling roll.
- Pace lessons so that the workflow can help you manage students. For example, have assignments ready for the early finishers instead of expecting them to just sit quietly with nothing to do while others finish.
- Arrange your classroom furniture so you can see every student and be seen from every desk in the room.
- Stay on your feet and monitor your students. Move around the room instead of sitting at your desk or standing in one spot for too long.
In addition to whole group interactions, one of the most difficult classroom with-it-ness skills to develop involves keeping the rest of the class on task while you work with an individual or with a small group. This is difficult to manage because as soon as students see that you are distracted, they often take advantage of the opportunity to misbehave.
What experienced teachers have learned, however, is that with diligence and just a bit of planning, even this difficult skill is one that can be perfected. To begin, try some of these suggestions to improve your with-it-ness skills while you work with small groups or individual students.
- Take care to make your expectations for student behavior during small conference time explicit. Spend time at the start of an activity explaining the procedures you want all students to follow as they complete their assignments. Be sure to include information to help the students who finish their work earlier than the others. Modeling what students are expected to do while working independently can help make expectations clear.
- Arrange for student experts to be available to help any students who need assistance or assurance that they are on the right track as they work. Consciously planning this will make it easier than if you try to include it on the spur of the moment.
- Set aside a place for students to post their questions, which you can answer later when you are free.
- Furniture arrangement is key. Set up your classroom so that you have a conference area that allows you to face the class: A group of desks in a front corner of the room is ideal. Be sure your chair faces the class and that the students you are conferring with face you.
- Do not linger with the small group. Have a plan for the conference and stick to it.
- As you work with the small group, continue to scan the room to monitor the other students. Gentle verbal reminders or praise for on-task behavior addressed to the entire group are often enough to keep everyone on task.