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Why Are Teachers Allowed to Gossip?

After working in schools for a number of years, I found the environment to be toxic.

Teachers need to be held accountable for their actions.

Teachers need to be held accountable for their actions.

A Code Ethics for Teachers Is Needed

For a couple of years, I took a break from writing. Working in a school department, I tutored severely autistic children. This was so rewarding that, briefly, I considered getting advanced training in the field of applied behavioral analysis.

However, in the end, I returned to writing. There were some things I didn't like about working in a school system. Heading the list was the toxic atmosphere in the teacher's lunchroom, thoroughly inundated with malicious gossip.

Speaking without any filter whatsoever, various teachers complained about this family or that child. Was a certain child diagnosed with behavior problems? Well, then, everyone knew about it, regardless of whether they needed to.

Was a certain family "high maintenance?" This meant, in special education circles, they were willing to advocate for their child and, if necessary, hire an attorney to help them get all of the services to which, under law, they were entitled.

Certain teachers decided that some parents were odd, an opinion they shared freely. However, no consideration was given to the fact that a particular mother, who did come across as scatterbrained, was trying to parent two severely autistic children. Money in that household also seemed tight. Could this possibly have something to do with why she didn't appear to have it all together?

The Psychologist Also Gossiped

In this particular building, the school psychologist was the worst offender. At lunch, she sat in the middle of the teachers, loudly voicing her "professional opinions." Her mouth ran nonstop.

At one point, she told me one parent wasn't that bright. Had she run an IQ test? Did she stop to think that, possibly, there were simply communication problems, as English wasn't his second language?

This parent was also, undoubtedly, under a lot of stress. He was a single parent with several children. One of them had autism, and his behaviors could be quite challenging.

The gossip was unquenchable, and it raised one important question. Why aren't teachers required to follow the same guidelines and ethics found in other professions? We usually don't hear doctors gossiping about their patients or social workers discussing their clients. So why is it okay for people who work with children to destroy their reputations?

Retired Teachers Gossip Too

In my personal life, I've known a number of teachers. For some reason, it's a profession many extended family members, as well as family friends, have entered.

Most of the teachers I know don't gossip. But a distinct minority of them do. It's very disturbing to hear them casually relating potentially damaging classroom anecdotes using real names. If you weren't of the opinion that gossip is evil, these would be highly amusing tales. However, they involve real people. A teacher should be in a position to help and not destroy.

I wonder how many parents realize that every bit of personal information shared with a teacher, or written on a school form, could easily be made public when the teacher socializes outside of the school?

Do they realize that, for some teachers, nothing is off-limits? This includes details about a child's diagnosis, behavioral interventions, suicide attempts, medication, health care information, and intelligence. All of these can go into the public rumor mill.

As one very professional educational consultant with doctoral-level training once remarked, "You walk into a teachers' lunchroom, and your ears burn."

Teachers Gossip About Each Other Too

Teaching is still a largely female-dominated profession, at least at the elementary, junior high, and high school levels. One issue that's finally receiving some attention is bullying among teachers. A shockingly high percentage of teachers claim they've been bullied by a colleague. In the UK, about 25 percent of educators report that this has happened.

In the United States, 1 out of 4 teachers has been bullied on the job. However, this figure factors in various potential perpetrators, including parents, students, and coworkers.

We can safely assume that most of these educational bullies are women. When she decides to target one of her own kind, she doesn't walk up to her and punch her rival in the gut. Instead, she will attempt to ruin this coworker's other relationships. The target soon finds herself isolated and, likely, the subject of gossip in the teachers' lunchroom.

This type of behavior is known as "relational aggression." It's a form of bullying that's just as real and just as devastating as the threat of physical violence.

Teacher gossip has even been scientifically documented. In 2009, the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography published a study showing how prevalent it's become. The study subjects came from a group of Midwestern elementary school educators.

Gossip and Public Policy

Teachers have my utmost respect, for they have enormous responsibilities for relatively little pay compared to other professions. However, the problem of gossip in the lunchroom and elsewhere shouldn't be ignored.

If I were a teacher, I'd want strict regulations enacted to curb this chatter so it doesn't detract from the profession. Right now, it's an open secret that reputations, as well as papers, are shredded by some school personnel.

Please understand I am not suggesting that all teachers are prolific gossips. But, apparently, enough of this trash-talking goes on, something that's caught the attention of researchers.

If there's any nationwide movement to address this problem, it wasn't evident with a Google search, typing likely phrases, such as "stopping teacher gossiping" into the search box. Nor does there seem to be any nationwide effort at enacting legislation to curb these runaway mouths.

At the local level, nearly all of the anti-bullying policies put forth by individual school districts seem aimed at reigning in student behavior. It appears as if teachers are still getting a pass.

The Limits of FERPA

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is a federal law that protects access, in most cases, to a student's educational records. However, FERPA doesn't protect against teachers sharing non-educational information, such as classroom incidents of misbehavior, or their own personal opinion on how well the parents of the students in their care are doing their jobs.

Parental "shortcomings," from my own personal experience in the teacher lunchroom, are a common topic.

FERPA also does not guard against an educator discussing what particular medication a child is taking or why. Nor does it prevent various diagnostic labels from being bandied about.

What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Families

In the absence of public policy regarding teachers who talk about their students, and their families, it's safe to assume that anything you tell a teacher may not remain confidential, depending upon his or her personal ethics.

Therefore, if you live in a small community and are employed there, you need to carefully think through any information you intend to share with a teacher. If it's not directly necessary for your child's education or welfare, there's probably no need to confide in a teacher.

School counselors, however, are supposed to abide by a code of ethics, which includes confidentiality. So, a sensitive problem is best handled at that level. It can't hurt to remind the counselor that you are not sharing this matter with the teacher.

Until we have a nationwide code of ethics specifically written for teachers, you can also instruct your child or children to discuss any problems that may arise with their guidance counselor.

Although I believe the behavior I witnessed by a school psychologist was the exception, this code of ethics did not prevent her from sharing her very unprofessional opinions with everyone inclined to listen.

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