What is Withitness?

A good teacher is usually great at multitasking. Their mind is able to process multiple sensory inputs at once—the random sounds in the classroom, the voices of her students, people walking by her classroom door—all while conducting a lesson and focusing on the educational content that needs to be presented. This is a characteristic that educators refer to as withitness.

When a teacher has withitness, she seems to have x-ray vision. It’s almost as if the teacher knows what’s going to happen before it actually does. Withitness encompasses multitasking, classroom awareness, alertness, intuition, and confidence—all in a way that projects a powerful image to every student in the classroom. The teacher is in control. She knows, and because she knows, the students know that there is no need to act out. Because she knows, she can stop misconduct with a look. Her body language and proximity enable her to maintain control effortlessly.

In an article entitled “Are You with It?,” Deb Wuest presents an excellent summary of withitness and related characteristics that all lead to effective classroom management.

Do your students think you have “eyes behind your head”? Can you deal effectively with the demands of several students at the same time? Are you effective at maintaining lesson momentum, changing activities when interest is waning or modifying activities to keep students busy? If so, you are using many of the techniques incorporated by Kounin into his discipline model.

Kounin’s model focuses on preventive discipline— techniques and strategies designed to prevent the occurrence of discipline problems in the first place. According to Kounin, good classroom management depends on effective lesson management. Kounin’s key ideas include the “ripple effect,” “withitness,” “overlapping,” effective transitions, class management, and satiation.

Wuest proceeds to describe two of Jacob Kounin’s (Kounin, J. S. Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms. Holt, Reinhardt and Winston, 1970. WikiEd suggests an updated treatment by Charles Wolfgang. Solving Discipline and Classroom Management Problems: Methods and Models for Today’s Teachers. John Wiley and Sons, 2001). key ideas:

Ripple Effect. The “ripple effect” occurs when the teacher corrects a misbehavior in one student, and this positively influences the behavior of other nearby students. The ripple effect is influenced by the clarity and firmness of the correction. The effect is greater when the teacher clearly names the unacceptable behavior and gives the reasons for the desist. Firmness, that is, conveying an “I mean it” attitude, enhances the ripple effect. The ripple effect is greatest at the beginning of the year and diminishes as the year progresses. At the high school level, Kounin found that respect for the teacher along with high motivation to learn lead to the greatest student involvement and minimum misbehavior by students.

Withitness. “Withitness” is a term created by Kounin to describe the teacher’s awareness of what is going on in all parts of the classroom at all times. We commonly refer to this as “having eyes in the back of the head.” To be effective, the students must perceive that the teacher really knows what is going on in the gymnasium. If students are off task and fooling around, the teacher needs to send a clear message that communicates to the students that the teacher sees that they are not working and they need to get started. Withitness can be improved with practice, such as learning how to effectively use systematic techniques to scan the class. Keeping your “back to the wall” as you move throughout the class helps you see the broader picture and be more aware of what is going on.

The effectiveness of withitness is increased when the teacher can correctly identify the student who is the instigator of the incident. Teachers who target the wrong student for a desist or a reprimand are perceived by the students as not knowing what is really going on (i.e., not “withit”). When several incidences of misbehavior occur at the same time, it is important that teachers deal with the most serious incidence first. Timing is another aspect of withitness. Teachers should intervene early and quickly in dealing with misbehavior. Failure to do so allows the misbehavior to spread.

Both the ripple effect and withitness are important ideas. When taken together, they can help you to project an aura that leads students to believe you have x-ray vision.

How Do I Develop X-Ray Vision?

X-ray vision is, of course, just an illusion. But you can use a few simple tricks to make this illusion real for your students. For example, you notice that a student has just started some action that will lead to misbehavior (e.g., a student takes a cell phone out of her desk). Turn your back for a moment and write something on the board or adjust papers on your desk. Then, without saying a word, quietly walk over to the child. In a soft but commanding voice say, “I’d like the cell phone, Nastasha. Please give it to me.”

Nastasha will look up, eyes wide. “How did you know?”

Your answer, “I know everything that happens in my classroom.”

This dialogue, if handled with subtle drama, will foster the illusion that you have x-ray vision. Later, when you notice that Natasha has changed her behavior for the better, react to her in a positive way. Walk to her desk and quietly say, “Thank you, Natasha. I noticed how you are really trying to listen, and I want you to know that I appreciate it.”

Stopping student misconduct using nonverbal techniques is another important way to give the illusion of x-ray vision. I was given a long-term subbing assignment in a primary classroom with an inclusion student, Justin, who had serious emotional issues. He had poor socialization skills, and his behavior was extremely disruptive.

Another child in the class, Ian, was genuinely sensitive and kind to Justin, and the two became classroom friends. I decided to ask Ian to help me handle Justin’s disruptive behavior, and together we developed a strategy. Every time Justin would act out toward another student, Ian would step in and remind him that his behavior was a problem or distract him with something else. Justin respected Ian and wanted to maintain the friendship. Ian was a natural at managing Justin’s volatile temper. It worked beautifully.

I rewarded Ian by giving him a special sign each time he did his “job.” Our eyes would meet, and I would smile and give him a subtle thumbs-up. Ian would beam with pride.

Justin never knew our little secret, and Ian’s self-esteem soared. No time was taken away from learning. No words were needed. A smile and a thumbs-up were all that were necessary.

The illusion of x-ray vision will provide you with a subtle technique for classroom management that doesn’t interrupt the flow of your lesson. Effective teachers never waste time with continual nagging, repeated warnings, or engaging in unnecessary dialogue with students. Their discipline is almost invisible.

Should I Use x-ray Vision on the Whole Class or Just with Individuals?

The x-ray vision illusion is most effective one-on-one. Other students will notice your interaction, and it will make an impression.

Whenever possible, it is best to have personal interactions. Whole-group conversations should be kept to a minimum. In general, most students are well behaved. It’s usually two or three students that are disruptive. Unfortunately, their behavior can ruin a perfectly wonderful group.

If you can show these individuals that you are aware of their behavior and will deal with it appropriately on a personal level, you will have good results. The ability to stop problems before they begin is the reason you want to foster the x-ray vision illusion.

Is There a “Look” that Can Help?

Many teachers have a special look that they use to indicate that they are displeased. If the look is effective, they can continue teaching the lesson without interruption or verbal interaction. Professional educators call this “controlling behavior using a nonverbal technique.” It’s discipline without interrupting instruction.

In a very funny book, Phillip Done describes his methods of mastering THE LOOK to a student teacher that is training in his classroom. (Done, P. 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 2005.)

Every teacher has a collection of looks. You have to or you won’t survive. . . . Let me explain. Basically there are five different teacher looks. The first one is called the Raised Eyebrow. It’s easy. Simply raise both eyebrows as high as you can. Do not speak. Keep your head perfectly still. Stare at the child for five to ten seconds.

Done goes on to describe all five looks and when to use them in a wonderfully comic style. The body language that you use, including your look, will be a wonderful tool for classroom management.

But please remember to use your “look” with a sense of humor. Children need to know that you are serious about your expectations for them, but they must feel that you have a human side to go along with the “look.” When used properly, the “look” can defuse a tense situation.

Can X-Ray Vision be Used to Read Someone’s Mind?

Good teachers have a way of being able to read the emotional needs of their students. You must develop a keen sense of observation to develop this sixth sense. When a student is upset, depressed, or agitated, he will provide you with a set of cues. Some are visual (e.g., hunched shoulders, head tilting downward), others are auditory (e.g., a shaky voice), and still others may be more outwardly behavioral. Through observation, you must try to sense when a student is upset and “ready to explode.” Those are the times when you need to just back off. Conversely, teachers need to be able to sense when a student needs positive reinforcement and move to provide it. The same visual, auditory, and behavioral cues will help.

Just as important, good substitute teachers must know when they need to “read someone’s mind.” You’ll know when it is necessary to intercede to avoid disruptive behavior and act appropriately to provide positive reinforcement.

To illustrate this point, I want to give you a personal example. I was subbing in a ninth-grade classroom and encountered a young lady whose academic skills were weak. To mask her weakness, she enjoyed disrupting class as an escape from doing her work. Ignoring directions was a good way to procrastinate. Defying her teacher was another pastime.

I noticed that she loved to wear jewelry (a visual cue) and she had a wonderful sense of style (or at least as wonderful as any ninth grader could have).

During an unstructured time, I decided to compliment her on her style and good taste. I took the time to have a “fashion conversation.” I asked her for some shopping advice for myself. She responded well. After that, I was sure to notice her jewelry selections and comment on them whenever it seemed appropriate. Through observation, I “read her mind,” found common ground, and established a communication pathway. After that, I had very little trouble with her behavior.


X-ray vision is an illusion that effective teachers use to create an “all-knowing” image. As a sub, you can do the same thing, and, as a result, you will be better able to manage your classroom. The following guidelines will help:

  • Strive to achieve “withitness.” A good substitute teacher is able to anticipate situations before they happen by using a combination of multitasking, classroom awareness, alertness, intuition, and confidence.
  • Recognize that the “ripple effect” can serve you well. If you can correct the behavior of one student, your effort can ripple across the classroom and positively influence all students. To accomplish this, you have to clearly identify the behavior problem and address a solution firmly.
  • Focus on one-to-one interactions when behavioral problems arise. If you sense that a particular student needs your attention or is misbehaving, address that student privately rather than disrupting or punishing the entire class.
  • Use little tricks to establish the x-ray vision illusion. Wait a beat before you correct a misbehavior you’ve observed, allowing students to believe you have eyes in the back of your head. As you develop this skill, you’ll learn to take advantage of the illusion.
  • Use facial expressions to convey your reactions to student conduct. If you are pleased, show it. If you are displeased, you can develop your “look.”
  • Try to sense and anticipate the needs of individuals and address them individually with those students. Develop a repertoire of individual responses to particular students. They will appreciate your individualized attention.

Like many other aspects of effective substitute teaching, x-ray vision comes naturally for some and is a struggle for others. But with effort and practice, you too will hear a wide-eyed student ask you, “How did you know?”