Welcome to Ask a Teacher! In this new series, a group of hilarious educators will tell you the TRUTH about what goes on in the teachers' lounge. First up, meet Mr. Jones!—Sparkitors
Q: Do you gossip about students with the other teachers?
I wish I could tell you that I turn my nose at the whiff of a rumor because I’m better than that. I wish I could tell you that being a fully-formed adult means that spreading half-truths and whole lies about others ends after high school. I also wish I were 50 pounds lighter and pulled the same salary as the average NBA bench player.
Look, it’s tough to be in any job where gossip doesn’t worm its way into conversation. In some ways, being a teacher is no different than my previous jobs (McDonald’s fry guy, school library, store cashier, freelance writer, house painter, mailman, checkout clerk, bank staff...). If you’re in a group of three, eventually two of you will get together to talk about the third. We’re social animals, and we can't help but talk incessantly about others.
So what do I “gossip” about my students? I have some personal unwritten rules about discussing other students to teachers:
1) I never talk about students in front of other students.
2) I don’t bring up their grades unless it’s a circumstance where I’m afraid that they’re not going to graduate and I need advice.
3) I don’t bring up clothes or make comments about their appearance. I’m a teacher, not a judge on Project Runway. (Although I’m sure I’d do a better job. Gretchen? Seriously?)
4) The goal of the gossip is to help the student.
Yes, help. For real.
Gossip is unfounded or unconfirmed rumors, and I use those rumors to try to gather a clearer narrative about the student(s). Think of it this way: Have you ever told a story to a group of friends and they turned around and told it to other people, only to have the story return to you with all sorts of embellishments? The final story isn’t exactly untrue, but it has additional parts that don’t exactly match the truth.
So when I hear a rumor or want to share a rumor with another teacher, I try to gauge what they’ve heard and see which parts match and which parts seem incongruous.
For example, I heard a rumor from a student that another student in one of my classes broke up with her serious boyfriend and it supposedly got messy. Accusations of cheating, a physical confrontation, the works. By the time the gossip girl was finished with her story, the police were brought in and the student was taken to juvenile detention.
I thought the tale was far-fetched, but I followed up with other teachers to hear what they heard, as well as a social worker. We were able to parse the real story from the same parts of the rumor that we heard and figured out that the breakup didn’t turn into a brawl. However, we wanted to develop a plan to help the student cope with her bad breakup. We all asked if she was okay (she was, although really down) throughout the day. Later in the year, she told me that we helped her by being there and being consistent in our message.
Sharing info about a student has also helped me become a better teacher. I had a sophomore who constantly slept in my class. I thought he was being disrespectful. I happened to see him in a different class, and he was attentive and diligent. I told the teacher that he’s always sleeping in my class and he shared with me some activities he uses to keep the kid’s attention. Lo and behold, the kid began working in my class. It wasn’t that the student was being rude—I was just boring as hell, and I needed to be less boring as hell.
Gossip doesn’t always work that way, and I’m sure there are plenty of adults who do not err on the side of discretion. But that’s life. Our lives and interactions do not operate in a vacuum and teachers will intentionally and unintentionally hear personal things about our students. One of the skills that I hope you learn in school is how to handle gossip and separate the truth from the fabrications. In a time where a story can be tweeted, Facebooked and plus-oned in a matter of seconds, you’ll need to keep an even head about you. Otherwise, you’ll end like one of these fools in the comments section questioning Obama’s birth certificate.
Mr. Jones is a high school teacher in Wisconsin. Surprisingly, he is married, and is the doting father to a lovely 4-year-old golden retriever.
Got a question for an English, science, math, writing, special ed, sociology, or PE teacher, or a specific question for Mr. Jones? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Do you think it's okay for teachers to gossip about students?