I often end up defining our school (and my own life’s work) by the most disenfranchised, unhappiest, troubled, least successful student I have …and the way I speak of them.
Coming of age entails the heightening search for belonging, meaning and wholeness, and there is never a straight line to any of it. High school is a rising cycle of hurt and healing. How can we provide for this? What would the best environment be? How might we fail? In this week’s column, I want you to know:
- What high school officials keep hearing in the office, and
- Why teens say they are miserable at school. You may not like it.
It’s gossip… we have it. Not just in every other school. But right at The Grauer School, too. And it hurts.
It might seem strange to announce we have a gossip issue at Grauer. Research using nationwide norms puts Grauer at the 99th percentile among schools all over the nation in the way parents and students rate our school climate. What’s more our students and parents rate our school to be an environment of mutual respect and belonging …in the 99th percentile . That is a gigantic edge over other schools. But it seems there is no escaping gossip.
Gossiping can be irresistible. Excluding others is an effective way to be included—what a bitter irony.
Gossip is a difficult thing to write about because:
- It’s so personal for many people and it can feel insulting, but these are terrible times to take things personally. Yes indeed: these are not good times to take things personally.
- Whoever tackles this subject is liable to have little moral authority, since we all slip up.
- A lot of gossip starts out as simple sharing in a casual setting and sort of dips down into gossip, then out …it might be tricky to catch.
Worse yet, a lot of gossip spreads when people believe they have all the moral authority. They have seen the wrong! They have seen the poor behavior! All they are doing is standing up for truth, justice, and the American way. But as far as I can see, when you express your righteous indignation, you give up your righteousness and dignity, both.
We all know it’s wrong. It’s hurtful. In fact, some people leave another school and come to Grauer to get away from … gossip. Our school feels lighthearted and inclusive, the kids are visibly mixing a lot, there is constant smiling, skipping, and play everywhere. But no school is immune—even here in the 99th percentile. Since people who are vulnerable seek us out, it breaks my heart when I hear gossip on our own campus. I try not to let it slide. I call it out.
Note: I will not call YOU out. I may call out your behavior, your judgment on an occasion, or your words—not your whole character or self or life. In fact, I’ll tell you something fascinating: I have great fondness and respect for many of the people I have called out on gossip (and other things) over the years. I love them in my life. It is not only teens who engage in pointless and illogical behavior, it is every human being on the planet.
But this much I need to assert:
We have gossip flare ups right here on campus among some of our good folks. And it’s going to devalue the work we all do here, our life’s work, our sense of place.
Fact: Here at school, every day, 160 teenagers show up. Don’t try that at home! Teens make messy or terrible gaffes—that’s part of their job. They cross lines and test boundaries, which is how they learn and strengthen. Our teens may hurt people and we can all feel the pain, sometimes anguish, as those people learn and strengthen, too. When any among us is humiliated and judged idly, we all suffer as a community.
Consider this: In any school, there is enough juicy and painful material to go around. Social media can make a maelstrom of it all, too, accelerating and multiplying the gossip, damaging relationships, causing rivalries and divisions, even leading to mental illness, or to suicides.
At school, our role is to create a safe container where people experience healing. A great teacher is a healer, not a blamer or a get-evener or a holier-than-thou. We’re healers.
What is the impact of gossip and inappropriate judgement passed on our healing? Kids experience judgement and rumors as adversity, which impacts every aspect of their functionality. When students are the victims of gossip, cortisol levels rise and so does anxiety; whatever might have caused a student to misbehave and spur the rumor (if that’s even what really happened) will get worse. When we are the targets of gossip, perceptions of threat arise along with a diminished ability to regulate stress; unhappiness and health issues all may be triggered.
To raise healthy kids, we need patience and encouragement in infinite quantities. We need bigger minds. From my desk, the teen observatory, just as kittens become cats, teens grow up and leave home. I want them strong. Gossip makes everything smaller, more short-sighted, never better. It drags us into the very mistakes we are being critical of. Judge not that thou be judged. What I love, love about this Biblical idea is that I know our students want this too, even the ones who make transgressions.
A year or two ago, in fact, a student left our school mid-year, stating she almost had to hide to get away from constant talk about: “What someone was wearing, what they said, how they acted, who they like.” This girl found the constant talk frustrating and tried hard to adapt—and she was never the object of the gossip, she was just a good person. She did not deserve to hear all this dirty laundry—she just wanted to come to school and learn and join. Here is the surprise: the gossipers probably did not mean it, either.
Here is even more hope:
It’s not uncommon for a student to approach me or any of the school leaders or teachers and say, “Stuart, I know people think I gossip, but they don’t understand me! Will you help?” And I know I can’t help much except to probe them further, to help them with their language. With lots of encouragement, our students are up to it, they can figure out how to get along, especially knowing we are on their team.
What is gossip, anyway? When I use this term, I mean talking about people who aren’t there, or passing judgement on them. That is why I really love that whole idea, integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching. Don’t shoot me, but the most common types that come to the desks of school leaders across the country are:
- Girls talking about other girls
- Moms talking about other people’s children
(For the record, females also tend to engage in more altruistic behavior and rate higher on certain measures of empathy than males.)
Personally, when I hear parents talking of other people’s children, it triggers a red flag for me—what are their children learning?
That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything if you have some issues with other people’s children—just not behind their backs. Parents can confide in a trusted school administrator, too. And this is an invitation to do so. Reporting student transgression is not gossip. Telling an administrator will bring help, whereas gossip is most liable to attribute to being miserable at school and growing up.
I have learned of gossip about me, too, and even from people who are supposed to be my big supporters. It can feel creepy. Sometimes it hurts. Normally I smile through it. It passes. Sometimes I address it—I don’t believe in letting lies stand. On the other hand, sometimes it does not pass. As a high profile person who does a lot of things publicly, I have had rumors about me linger for months, and an inability to track where they are coming from—this is terrible. I expect I have a thicker skin than my students but I have to say, the knowledge of rumors about me floating around impacts my sleep, performance, thinking, happiness, ability to serve, and appearance. I’m sure those who have been dissing me truly believed they have had good cause, and their failure to attempt to really understand my position on the issues (their failure in empathy) is their cruelty more than any of the things they say.
You might be asking, “How do I prevent gossip?” So, here are some strategies:
- Change the subject! Just bring up something else. Now. If you have ever seen someone do this, as I have, you know it is a thing of mastery. Gossip is attractive, sort of drug-like, so changing the subject is an admirable sign of strength.
- Defend the person who is being gossiped about—make it known you are the eyes and ears of those not present.
- Use the strategy perfected by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It is the most effective, though it might take some training: “Hey, Susie, when you talk about how you think Jimmy was flirting with Johnny’s crush (describe the behavior), it makes me feel uncomfortable (describe the feelings/emotions you have) since they are not here. Would you be willing (now make the request) to not say things about other people that you would not say if they were here with us?” (This one takes practice, though, and, I think, courage. It’s worth it.)
These three items tend to be more important than people realize. The gossiper often speaks out of pain, fear, hurt, sense of inadequacy, or frustration, and when we “go along” with the gossip in an effort to help heal that pain, it sends the message that the gossip is legitimate. This helps no one, and even can contribute to an unhealthy environment. If I had one wish for myself, it is that I would be great at realizing when someone is speaking out of pain or fear and, deep down, not really malintent.
It breaks my heart maybe the most when I hear parents gossip in front of their own children, which I really do hear and hear about. When I hear that, I know my job on campus just got harder and our kids’ risk for unhappiness and disenfranchisement just got higher. Your kid is feeling hurt, so rather than help your child strengthen, you pick a common enemy to blame. But our children don’t have to feel like victims—that’s really unhealthy for them. Even Dr. Edith Eger, Holocaust survivor and emeritus Grauer Faculty member, didn’t feel like a victim. She came to terms with her own pain.
If you’ve been gossiping and realize it, there is only one way to feel better and recover quickly: own up. Apologize. “Woops!” Because …we’ve all gossiped. And keep smiling.
What can you do if you’re the object of gossip? Then, there is only one thing you can do: confront the person unemotionally. Warning with a blinking red light: if you can only confront the gossiper emotionally or angrily or sarcastically (or behind their back), you are going to make things worse, possibly unsalvageable. Confront people only if you can do so in a total absence of emotion. This is aikido and jiujitsu. This is peace.
Now, a burning question. What’s worse: saying something directly to someone that hurts their feelings, or gossiping about someone behind their back? Believe it or not, it is possible that the gossip is worse. Because if you are the one gossiping, you are not just damaging one person, you are poisoning the whole community.
What about venting, is that gossip? Okay, if you need to get something off your chest, sure, ask someone if you can talk to them confidentially. And then, keep it confidential. Tell your kitty, not your kid! You might even gain greater clarity for yourself, hence gossip less when you are back in the group. Venting focuses on what you are going through; gossip focuses on someone else, one who becomes your victim. I hope you will talk about this distinction with your child.
When I signed on to be an educator of teens, it was already obvious that I would be dealing with everything that coming of age entails, the troubles, joys, and despair, and that all these dealings would need a safe space, “a field beyond” and a place for healing. The opposite of gossip is healer, and I aspire to that. I often end up defining our school (and my own life’s work) by the most disenfranchised, unhappiest, troubled, least successful student I have …and the way I speak of them. It’s gotten clearer that my only real job is to help everyone look after one another, always better.
 2019 Panorama Survey of Social Emotional Learning (nationwide)
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