By Andrew Hawk
Having worked at four different schools as a teacher and a dozen more as a teaching assistant, I have been familiar with the teacher’s lounge for a long time. This private sanctuary offers teachers a place not just to eat, but also to recharge for the remainder of the day. In this simple room, bonds are often formed between teachers. These bonds can have a vast impact on the work chemistry of a teaching staff.
Unfortunately, this room can also be home to less positive interactions. I have worked at a school where gossip was a major problem. When gossip gets out of control, it can have a negative impact on student learning outcomes. In addition, things being said behind closed doors and not out in the open are one of the major indicators of a toxic work environment.
Venting is a healthy thing for people to do when they are frustrated. It is completely necessary and understandable. However, I suggest venting to a trusted friend or family member outside of the workplace. (Even then, do not include confidential information while venting.) Venting your frustration with a colleague or a student to a group of coworkers is never a good idea.
Unfair to Students and Colleagues
In the course of a school year, teachers will often come across private information about students that may affect their classroom performance. For example, if a student’s parents are getting a divorce, this is likely to have some impact on his behavior at school. Letting other teachers who might come into contact with that student know about a situation like this is not gossip. But telling every adult in the school about it and adding your opinion on the matter is gossip. Not only is it pointless, but it is dehumanizing to the student.
Finger-pointing is a common form of gossip that occurs among teachers. At the elementary level, this often happens between grade levels. Maybe the third-grade teachers think that the second-grade teachers grade too lightly. For this reason, so the gossip goes, the students are never ready for third grade. Perhaps fourth grade believes that third grade does not assign enough homework. For this reason, the third graders are never ready to embrace fourth-grade homework. You get the idea.
The problem is that in the midst of the finger-pointing, relationships deteriorate and nothing seems to change. If one grade level has a problem with how another grade level operates, all people involved should come together and hash out their differences.
Here are some tips for curbing gossip at your school:
Don’t Avoid the Teachers’ Lounge
When I was in college, professors told teaching candidates to stay out of the teachers’ lounge. My classmates and I were told that this was the best way to avoid becoming part of the gossip circles that exist in some schools. The problem with this strategy is that if all the people who do not gossip stay out of the teachers’ lounge, then gossipers are given an open area for gossiping. I am not suggesting that people go into the teachers’ lounge and confront gossipers, but you can make a big impact by leading by example.
Most teachers understand that gossip exists but do not understand its possible repercussions. The basic definition of a toxic environment is a place where the staff stand in the way of change. Gossip is one of the key elements of a toxic environment. If you think you may be working in a toxic environment, approach your administrator about pursuing a building-wide professional development on the subject. Better yet, do some research and offer to hold the professional development yourself.
Before you start training your colleagues on the dangers of gossip, do a little self-reflection and make sure that you are not a culprit yourself. If you are, you should form a plan to alter your behavior. Two good rules of thumb include the following: First, keep student information on a need-to-know basis. Second, do not say something about a colleague behind his or her back that you would not say to his or her face.
Voice Concerns at the Appropriate Times
Not everything needs to be said in a building-wide meeting. If one grade level has concerns about another grade level, stating the concerns in a full staff meeting will probably do more harm than good. However, somehow the two grade levels will need to come together to work out their differences. If you are in a situation like this and do not think the teachers will be able to resolve an issue on their own, approach your administrator about the matter. It will be the administrator’s duty to act as a facilitator in the matter.
Reach Out to the Island Teachers
“Island Teacher” is a term I have heard used to describe teachers who want to be on their own little island. They do not want to collaborate, and they do not want to do things as a team. These people are often the subject of school-wide gossip. Honestly, they bring most of it on themselves. If you work with someone like this, try to find a way to lure him or her off of the island. Gossiping about what a bad team player someone is will not change the situation.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.
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