Kelly E. Middleton
Rumors, Gossip and Politicking During a Pandemic
This is the fourth in a series of posts on the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. You can read the first, second and third on my blog.
As public school employees, we know just how much gossip pervades our schools. Students are always spreading rumors and word travels fast in a school, often resulting in hurt feelings and damaged reputations. But it's not students that I'm going to focus on in this post. It's the gossip our employees spread that really gets my goat.
I've witnessed countless employees spreading negative rumors—true and untrue—about the school on social media and to friends and family. It drives me nuts to hear these because it is so damaging to our school's reputation. Just like how students spreading rumors about who did what at the dance or who got in trouble for cheating can unfairly stereotype a student, school staff gossiping about a teacher favoring athletes or cafeteria food with band-aids in it can ruin a school's good standing in the community.
So why do we keep doing it? People love to gossip and perhaps even more so when they are stuck at home while school is closed. That's why it is important right now to know what to do to keep a lid on those in-house issues. When I say in-house issues, I mean anything from school employees getting DUIs, employees or the school board infighting, budget problems, possible lawsuits against the school and any other piece of negative information that should stay confidential.
The first step is to recognize the impact of gossip. Sure, there's always something to gripe about at any job, but there's a problem unique to schools that we cannot ignore. We're under the microscope of the community at large and every bit of negative press or gossip that makes it out to the public is another reason why private schools, homeschooling and charter schools are able to lure our students to their halls. Because of this reality, public school gossip is juicy and when our employees get ahold of it, they can be tempted to spread it. I'm sure we all know what goes on in the teacher's lounge and how quickly those rumors spread through the school and then the community.
For example, one summer I had a young teacher who failed one of the teacher certification tests. She made the mistake of telling the other teachers and the information even got back to an interviewee we ended up not hiring. Soon, all over the district I was hearing that we hired non-certified teachers. It was on social media, I had calls from school board members. It was a mess!
The young lady passed the test before school started and went on to become a great teacher. So the whole rumor was completely false. I later asked her why she told on herself. She replied that she thought everyone around here were good friends.
Sometimes I forget just how young and inexperienced our new teachers are right out of college. We have added "Pitfalls of New Teachers" to our teacher induction programs to address issues like these before they occur, including how to stay away from the negative staff who are always looking for new members of their gossip ring.
We may not be able to prevent all negative gossip from getting out, but we can try. Educating employees on just how damaging spreading rumors can be for the school is a start. Don't forget to mention that sharing gossip can actually cost them their jobs, since we are funded by families choosing to send their kids to our schools and hearing these negative stories can make them choose a different school, thus cutting budgets and leading to downsizing staff. I've found that many school employees simply don't realize the consequences of what they're doing and when they realize it, they stop or at least cut down on what they share with friends and family outside the school.
Reminding staff and nipping problems in the bud can help keep stories, like the one above, that should stay private from reaching the community. That's why I am on social media. I've got to have my finger on the pulse of what is going on at the schools at all times and often it starts on social media. I even have my other school leaders do the same so we can share information we may have missed individually. The faster I learn about it, the quicker I can respond and squash it before it goes public, gets out of hand or gets past the point where I can intervene and share the facts.
I would also encourage school leaders to keep gossip internal. While this is a tricky line to toe, it doesn't damage the school's image, but allows staff the room to vent within the school walls. Of course, many employees simply want to be in the loop with school information.
According to B2B marketing company Tribal Impact, 74% of employees have the feeling they are missing out on company news. A good internal communication system is key to both keeping bad information in and disseminating necessary information to employees. Keeping backstage issues backstage, as I like to say, is one way to make sure the gossip stays in-house.
A very powerful way we can combat negative gossip is by spreading positive gossip. I believe all school employees should act as positive public relations agents for the school. In my book, Competing for Kids, I share some strategies for training employees to keep the negative stuff under wraps and spread the positive gossip to all they know. I have found that about 80% of a school's positive public relations stories come from employees, not the media. So it's up to us to direct the narrative, especially as we adjust to a changing educational world.
During this global health crisis, we do still have great positive stories to share. What have we learned about students' lives that we wouldn't have in a traditional classroom setting? What different lesson plans or learning experiences have students been given? I've seen countless videos of creative ways to continue to socially distance while celebrating others in the form of birthday and graduation parades, students performing parking lot dances with ample spacing and even sports that can be played further apart. Sharing these fun and creative ways our students are coping with our very challenging novel situation is a great way to show school spirit, remind students we care about them and endear our schools to the public.
When we can collectively share five positive school stories for every negative school story that spreads through the community, we can dilute the impact of the bad gossip. We may even get the benefit of the doubt when we fail to keep a major negative story backstage.
I'd also like to address politics, since many people's views of school policy during the coronavirus are tied to their political party. For school leaders, this is not the time for politicking. We need to think and act with our customers—our students and families—in mind. Gossip and rumors are hurtful enough to the school's reputation in the community, so adding political commentary on top of that can make matters worse.
When we send messages out to the public, they should be free of praise or criticism of politicians and focus on the issues that affect students. School officials ranting about politics can be just as damaging as publicly airing our school's dirty laundry. Now is a critical time to build trust in our students and families—to come together over what matters to us and leave politics out of it.
No school is immune to staff spreading negative information to the community. But taking steps to inform staff of the consequences of gossiping and teaching them how to act as positive PR agents for the school can help lessen the blow of that gossip. I know it is hard, in this decentralized work environment, to keep the team together and collectively voice the same message. We can't police all our employees all the time, so we can only give them the tools to succeed and remind them regularly of these expectations. If you can do that, you're on your way to keeping your backstage issues backstage and building up the reputation of your school with positive stories from your students, staff and families who have all worked hard to make it through this unprecedented school year.