I once worked for a school principal who, when about to give me a telling off for my latest perceived crimes, would start the conversation with “I’ve heard through the grapevine that you…”
Which basically means… “I listen to gossip, I’ve heard some about you and I am allowing it to shape my behaviour towards you.”
Gossip is rife in schools as, I suppose, it is in many workplaces. But does that mean we have to accept it? Schools are the places in which the future is shaped. The people who work in schools should – technically – be modelling the type of behaviours that will guide young people to a better future.
A better future is not created in a culture of gossip. Cliques of people who spend their time annihilating, judging and stabbing people in the back are not really going to pave the way for humankind, are they? The funny thing is… it’s really hard to talk about those gossipy people – and we all know who they are – without becoming a gossip yourself!
Furthermore, by refusing to take part in gossip, you can end up isolating yourself from your colleagues. In the same school as the one I mentioned before, my wife refused to enter into a conversation in which one particularly gossipy person was verbally assassinating a mutual acquaintance. Within weeks, she was a social pariah… the forked tongues wagging away until their work was done. Meanwhile, the gossipy person came out smelling of roses – much like the little prisoner in the comic strip above who becomes Caesar’s secret gossipy weapon and whose effect can be seen as people’s words become more and more green!
A school without gossip would be a school with a better chance of avoiding misunderstandings, petty conflicts, resentments, misconceptions, jealousy, loneliness, paranoia, judgment, assumptions, depression, toxicity, cliques, divisiveness and so on… all of which are extremely destructive human behaviours.
Its not like we’d be trying to pretend gossip didn’t exist in the real world, but instead acknowledging that it does exist, that it is poisonous and that we won’t stand for it.
So, teachers, some advice for you:
- don’t allow yourself to get sucked into talking badly about other people
- make it clear to gossipy people that you have no interest in it
- discuss gossipy habits with students and work with them to grow above it
And, people in leadership positions, some advice for you:
- make it clear you have a zero-tolerance policy on gossip
- don’t allow the evolution of a culture of people coming to see you to complain about other people
- make it very clear that you shape your own perspectives about people
- when you become aware that you have some toxic gossip happening, knock it on the head straight away
- when you have observed patterns of toxic gossip amongst certain people, deal with them directly
Schools are funny places. A large number of teachers haven’t ever really left school. They went to school, then university and then back to work in a school. Sometimes feels like they’re caught in perpetual adolescence. What I am talking about applies to everyone. Doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, people like to gossip.
It takes a lot of guts to withstand what others say. The test in this is not changing or bending who you are in order to be liked or accepted by others. There is a lot to be said in staying true to who you are. It actually feels really good!
It takes more guts to actually challenge gossip. Not many people do it. They either engage in it or remain silent. Both just as bad as each other.
I respect anyone that stops gossip in its tracks and says, “what you are saying didn’t happen like that” or “if that person was here what would they think?” or “I don’t think what you are doing is ok”.
I watched a video many years ago, the title escapes me, but there’s a scene where one of the actors refers to gossip as feathers. The image above shows the effects and destruction of gossip – a lot like a feather pillow bursting open. The feathers go everywhere and spread as it blows in the wind and is carried far away. It is almost impossible to collect the feathers and put them all back in the pillow. This is a lot like gossip and the irreversible effects it has. Gossip can colour reputations. A teacher’s reputation is all we really have and can take away with us.
There is a real upside to this post. I can confidently say that I am at a school where gossip does not really exist. I am sure it is there, just not in the malice or nasty ways that I have heard and experienced. It feels so good to be in a school that does not feed or fuel gossip. If there is gossip, it is just the latest scoop on what’s going on, pretty light-hearted stuff.
What is your work place like with gossip?
Have you or would you be able to stand up to gossip and shut it down?
Nearly five years ago, in Beijing, I held the hand of my son for four days. A twin, he was born lifeless after a series of mistakes by doctors at the most reputable and expensive hospital in the city.
As I sat with him and listened to the beeps of the life support machine, I felt that he gave me three messages about life. Tragically, he will never be able to put them into practice himself, but I will certainly try. I will also try and apply them to the way I teach and the way I work in school.
Freddy’s three messages were:
Listen to your gut instincts
Both my wife and I had a gut feeling something would go wrong with the delivery in Beijing. We both knew she should fly to Bangkok, but we ignored those thoughts and feelings for practical reasons.
Every day we are presented with situations in which our gut instincts can be felt very strongly. It is vital that we don’t lose our ability to sense them, listen to them and act upon them. As teachers, these instincts can make the difference between someone who simply does the job and someone who has a significant impact on young minds and lives.
Teaching is an art form, it is a talent, and gut instincts are a crucial factor in knowing what kids need at any given moment. You just don’t get that in your training, in the curriculum or at any PD.
Keep friends and family close
There is an increasing trend these days to move away and seek a better life somewhere else. For international school teachers like myself, this can be an unending quest. Our families are far away and our friendships often temporary. Facebook and Skype are not the right way to interact with the people who are important to you. A screen does not, and will never, replace being physically close.
As teachers, we must ensure that our students learn how to develop friendships and value their family. We must also help them to grow up as people who communicate face-to-face, who interact physically and who understand that social media is not actual life. They need to learn how to use social media the same way we used to use an address book, as a tool that brings you together in reality.
Don’t talk badly about other people
Such a difficult one. It is amazing how easy it can be to spend time talking about other people. It is also amazing how many bonds are formed by this negative habit.
Gossip and back-stabbing are an integral part of life in schools, something about them breeds it. In some schools it can become a real culture of trying to make yourself look good by making other people look bad. Of course, I am talking about the teachers not the students! However, it is an awful thing for children to be surrounded by, don’t you think?
It is much better to decide not to talk badly about other people, or at least to try not to. When you’re next sitting in the staffroom listening to people slag someone off… get up and walk away. Or, even better, tell them you’re not prepared to be part of it.
This is a massively important lesson for kids too. Helping them identify, deal with and avoid gossip could be an extremely empowering element to your teaching.
Naturally, my success at living up to these ideals varies as each year progresses. However, I do believe that I can improve my life and my ability to do my job if I can make them happen. I also believe I am not alone, which is why I’m sharing them.