People talk. They gossip. They gripe about their colleagues. As a coach, I feel like I hear it all. To be successful, though, I can’t participate, no matter how tempting.
It isn’t because I don’t enjoy gossip. And certainly, it isn’t because I have no gripes. One of the things I focus on establishing with my teachers is that they can tell me anything without worrying about privacy, judgment, or negative consequences. To preserve the relationships I am building, I must be a vault. The black box. Information goes in raw and comes out not at all.
It is incredibly lonely to only listen. It is exhausting to choose my words carefully with everyone. It is depressing to hear accounts of terrible teacher behavior. It is delicate work to determine what action, if any, to take in response.
Developing appropriate responses to gossip and gripes is an ongoing challenge.
There are times when I gently suggest to someone sharing another teacher’s personal dramas that perhaps spreading rumors isn’t the most supportive course of action. Though nerve-wracking, the direct route usually works best. Questions I’ve asked include “How is sharing this information helping your colleague?,” “What could we do to support this person?,” or “I wonder if this information can help you work with this person?”
Often, gossip is an avoidance tactic. Teachers who gossip about others are generally attempting to avoid focusing on themselves. Those in this category are often unwittingly revealing insecurities about their professional acumen. When I recognize a teacher using gossip to stall, I can more easily put aside any irritation I might feel.
Other times, I simply listen and hold my tongue. There are people who use gossip to build connections with others and establish a personal relationship. Those same individuals are often also testing the trustworthiness of the people in whom they confide.
When teachers complain about each other’s professionalism, I find that trickier to manage. It irritates me when teachers tear each other down. Criticisms that are unjustified are especially irksome. The best I can do in those circumstances is to express surprise and offer counterexamples.
Criticisms based on legitimate concern are tough. Generally, I work with the teacher speaking to try and see things from a different perspective. Then I try to ensure I work with the teacher who is struggling on those areas that are problematic.
For example, two teachers came to me to complain that another teacher in their subject area is neither paying attention or contributing to group efforts. I tried to be tactful and ask them what efforts they have made to give her meaningful tasks or play to her strengths…to no avail. Finally, the tirade ended with a “How can she not sense the almost open hostility?”
I took a deep breath and said as calmly as possible, “Maybe she does and it rightly fuels some sense of self-righteous superiority.” Both women paused, looked at each other, and then one said, “Well, that’s counterproductive!” I agreed and asked them what they could try instead. There was some grumbling. I gave them a choice “Put some extra effort into finding ways to work with her, or expend that energy being irritated.” Despite the continued grumbles, they conceded that being irritated wasn’t working well for them.
Being so direct is always risky, but I know my teachers fairly well by now, and I felt confident a more direct approach was an appropriate course of action.
Still, though, I worry. What if I had been wrong? What if this teacher’s behavior becomes even more egregious. How much griping can I take? How do I help this teacher?
Gossip and gripes are inevitable with any group of people. Navigating them as a coach is tough. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make the ick people spew about each other go away. I don’t know if I always handle it in the best way possible. All I can say is that I try. I try to be the black box. I try to create and nurture relationships.