When it comes to gossip—unrestrained conversations about other people—teachers are certainly not immune. Schools are insular, and teachers' lounges can be hotbeds for gossip.
Gossip doesn't always end in disaster—at times, it can help you blow off steam with trusted coworkers. But if you're not careful about the types of topics that come up, it can be extremely damaging to school culture, to morale, and to your career.
Here's some advice for teachers who find themselves constantly surrounded by negative school gossip—or even the subject of it.
In their article, "Passing the Word: Toward a Model of Gossip and Power in the Workplace," Nancy Kurland and Lisa Hope Pelled point out that the negative effects of gossip can range from the erosion of trust and morale to increased anxiety among employees. That's a pretty strong argument for avoiding gossip—or at the very least, avoiding situations where you're likely to encounter gossip.
Further reading: 6 Strategies to Relieve Teacher Anxiety
There are certain areas of a school where gossip proliferates, such as the teachers' lounge or the faculty cafeteria. When issues get particularly hot, I avoid these spots. I find that gossip almost always brings me down, and being in those spots is not worth the negativity.
In my school there are many relationships among the staff members. Our former superintendent's wife was a teacher. Our former principal's daughter is a literacy coach who is married to another teacher. In such a tight environment, assume there are many connections you may not know about. Don't risk talking about someone else to a colleague—you never know what kind of relationship that colleague has with the person you're gossiping about.
Telling tales outside of school is always dangerous. One time I was at a bookstore several towns away from my school. When the cashier took my educator's card, he said, "Oh, I hear you have a new principal." My response was less than enthusiastic. Imagine my surprise when I found out later that my cashier was the principal's father. Discussing school issues with people in your community will always come back to bite you. Don't do it.
We've all heard the stories—you meant to send an email to a colleague, and you accidentally sent it to someone else. One of my colleagues once sent an email talking about our new principal that said, "Can you believe we have to put up with three years with this *#*&?" You guessed it—she accidentally sent it to the new principal.
Psychology Today points out that we tend to "have a strong negativity bias: almost all of us pay more attention to negative information than we do positive information." If you find that you're the target of gossip, don't let those negative emotions take control of you. If you have to, sit down and write out your frustrations so you can separate yourself from them and refocus on what's important: the students.
If you want to confront the person spreading gossip about you, Robert Willer, a researcher at Stanford University, suggests you "Approach the person in a sympathetic, nonconfrontational way, so that you can win their sympathies." Offering your perspective can help.
More than anything, though, my advice to teachers who find themselves the subject of gossip is to focus on your job and give things time to die down. Taking the high road can be tough, but, as my mother always said, it is the always best route.
A few years ago, a disgruntled wannabe politician in my city spread rumors about me when he heard I wasn't a supporter. When I got wind of them, I went directly to my superintendent, who backed me unequivocally. I was lucky to have a great support system. I ignored the gossip and kept myself focused on my students, pouring myself into my work. In a few weeks, the gossip died down, and the politician was humiliated. He never ran for office again.
If you're the victim of particularly nasty gossip, you may want to set the record straight with those who matter. However, you don't need to defend yourself to everyone. Don't pour gasoline on the gossip by talking about it constantly. Gossip without fuel eventually dies out.
The best advice for teachers is to avoid gossip altogether. If you engage, people will wonder what you're saying about them when they're not around. In addition, if you get called out for spreading rumors, it's not just embarrassing—it can be career-damaging.