Cop eyes

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(A post for newbies and those teachers who are sometimes taken by surprise by events in their classrooms.)

A definition taken from the Urban Dictionary, a great source for clearing up mysterious classroom expressions:

Cop eyes:
“The ability to see cop cars and police officers from such a distance that you remain “under the radar”.

Andrew(on the phone to Chris): “Hey, man. I got out of work late, but I’m gonna fly to meet you at that party asap.”
Chris: “Alright. Just don’t get pulled over; make sure you got Sam with you. That girl’s got mad cop eyes.”

The best cops have their own version of cop eyes, the ability to notice atypical behavior on the street, to feel when a scene is not right. They hear unnatural quiet. They see arms that fall oddly in wrong directions.

If you have cop eyes, count yourself lucky. Teachers with cop eyes enter the classroom carrying a large, natural advantage. If any rational discipline plan has been put in place, students will behave under those watchful eyes. Trouble seldom even starts.

“She knows. Somehow she always know when you are going to do something,” students tell each other.

I never had those eyes. While I am explaining polynomials to one student, other students will often fade out of view even when they are right beside me. My classes and I have almost always gotten along very well, so that lack of peripheral awareness has mostly not caused me grief. But in the wrong class, at the wrong time, students who are “under the radar” can be real trouble — for themselves, for you and for others.

What can you do? I suggest that you practice developing your own set of cop eyes. At first, you might set alarms to remind yourself to practice. Otherwise, your efforts are likely to become an afterthought. This one skill has the potential to make your whole teaching career easier, every day of every year.

Take 5 minutes in every class to use your peripheral vision. What is happening? Where is it happening? How does the room feel? Is the room messy? Where is it messy? How did it get that way? Who is on task? Who is drifting? Don’t react right away to what you see. If you start to pull in that kid who is drifting, you may lose your focus, and cop eyes are all about focus. Your goal is to develop that peripheral vision, to learn to sense the class mood and to stop trouble before it starts.

Some people naturally scan the room around them, others not so much so. This topic seldom hits the educational school radar, no doubt because it’s impossible to quantify. We have no Cop Eye Scale where a teacher can measure an average of 42% alertness in the morning, falling to 27.5% by late afternoon. (Thank goodness! If we did, somebody would be making us record these numbers in another spreadsheet somewhere.) But if you are one of those teachers who is taken by surprise by events in the classroom, this post is for you.

I once turned down a job offer from two of the nicest guys I’d met in the education world when I was in my third year teaching. The district was obviously well-run and had surprisingly good test scores given its poverty rate. But class sizes were large, and explaining my choice, I said, “I never know where that paperwad came from.” I moved into bilingual education instead, opting for smaller class sizes.

I got better. Each year, I became more able to see the whole of my classroom, rather than just part.

To some extent anyway, cop eyes can be learned. I suggest taking time to deliberately practice if you are not a natural. One other tip on this topic: Sleep helps enormously. That mysterious peripheral view that you are striving for will come more easily when you are rested.

Optional observation from the blogger: I have told readers I am ADHD. ADHD runs heavily through the maternal side of my family and I’ve passed it on. My oldest fits all the classic lists of ADHD characteristics and the youngest one struggled at times in elementary school with attention issues. One characteristic associated with ADHD is hyperfocus. From “Learn About ADHD: Focus on Hyperfocus,” at

“What you might not know about ADHD is that there’s another side: the tendency for children and adults with attention deficit disorder to focus very intently on things that do interest them. At times, the focus is so strong that they become oblivious to the world around them.”

This trait makes teaching tougher sometimes.