She Said What?! 

Gossip in the Workplace and a Leader’s Response

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  We’ve all heard the old adage.  Although I understand the intent of the saying, I must disagree.  Words can hurt, and in the workplace they can be very destructive.

A few years ago, I had an interview for a teaching position in which the majority of questions asked by the administrator revolved around the issue of gossip.  The interviewer didn’t concentrate upon my qualifications and/or educational philosophy.  He didn’t focus upon my students’ test scores or my instructional practices.   Why?  Because, although we know better, gossip runs rampant at schools, just like in other workplaces.  As educators, we teach our students about the dangers of gossip (remember the old “telephone” game?), yet we often become a part of it ourselves.

What is gossip?  Who and what can we talk about in the workplace?  Friendly discussion that makes references to others in a general, supportive way is not gossip, it’s just conversation.  But when we feel the need to talk in hushed tones and/or when the topic is picking holes in another’s character, this is gossip.  Sometimes gossip is less personal.  It’s a wildfire fueled by fear and supposition, usually about a general change in the workplace.

What does gossip do to a school?  Gossip breeds distrust and puts up walls between co-workers.  How does this serve our students?  When we are consumed with “who said what about whom” we can not truly concentrate upon our number one priority, the children in our care.  Morale is affected negatively and with it the ability to do our jobs.

I say these things knowing that I am not at all perfect.  I’ve certainly made many mistakes in this area.  It is innately human to talk to others, share stories, and complain when we are upset.  Yet, as leaders, we need to be cognizant of our role and set an example for others.  Our words, what we do and do not say, can have a tremendous impact upon our school, as well as on others’ lives.  Our tongues have tremendous power.

James 3:3-6 “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example.  Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue is also a fire…”

In closing, I found an article by Calvin Sun on techrepublic.com with some excellent tips regarding gossip and leadership.   I’ve highlighted some of them below.

1: Set the example and tone If you’re a leader or manager who wants to reduce or eliminate workplace gossip, take a look at yourself first. Are you gossiping about your own boss or peers? Are you speculating idly or complaining about future company policy? If so, don’t be surprised if your subordinates do the same thing. Set the right tone and those subordinates are more likely to follow.

2: Be open to hearing issues If your subordinates sense that you’re unwilling to hear about and discuss workplace issues, gossip may result. If they believe they can’t talk to you, they will merely complain to each other. If they can’t get clear answers to questions, they will speculate among themselves.

3: Refuse to be drawn in A good way of stopping gossip and rumors is simply to refuse to be drawn in. In other words, refuse to respond to comments about the absent person with more comments about that person. Even better, try to change the subject subtly. For example, the next time someone gossips about your co-worker Tom, try bringing up something about Tom’s child, perhaps with regard to something that child has in common with your own child. Then, begin talking about the children and their common activity rather than about Tom. Most likely, the group will not even notice that the gossip has changed to something else.

4: Focus on solutions not problems Much gossip arises when a group of workers is concerned about a particular problem. If you sense that the conversation in your group is headed toward complaining or gossiping, remember the old adage “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” Instead of joining in with the complaining, simply ask the group what anyone thinks might be a solution. Of course, the group might not be able to come up with an answer. Furthermore, the boss might not go along with whatever the group comes up with. However, the exercise of focusing on solutions will take away from the urge to gossip.

5: Avoid self-righteousness If you try any of these techniques, do it in a low-key manner. Don’t announce or make a big deal about what you’re doing. Above all, avoid being condescending or lecturing people about the evils of gossip. Doing so will only alienate your co-workers. By being casual about dealing with the gossip, you remove the problem of creating a new problem for yourself.

As leaders, let’s encourage a culture of growth and solutions in our schools, instead of allowing the destructive nature of gossip to take seed.

Krista Bridenthal

Indianapolis, IN

When speaking about affective leadership, many people would define it as individuals that can maintain large and complex organizations operating effectively.  This, however, is not leadership; it is management.  Management and leadership are two separate concepts.  

1. The process of dealing with or controlling things or people: "the management of deer".
2. The responsibility for and control of a company or similar organization: "the management of a newspaper".

1.     The action of leading a group of people or an organization.
2.     The state or position of being a leader.

Management is a set of processes, like planning, staffing jobs, and evaluating work performance.  Though management is crucial for an organization to stay afloat, it is not leadership.  Leadership is taking an organization to its full potential, and finding opportunities for growth.  Leadership is about voicing the vision of the organization, and getting others to believe in it.  Most importantly, leadership is about producing change.  Leadership is more than a person’s “charisma,” but rather a person’s behavior, and how he/she promotes the vision of the organization.  Leadership can happen no matter where someone is in the hierarchy of the organization.  In order to have affective leadership, we first need to understand that leadership is not management. If we can do this, then the quality of leadership will be stronger and change can happen.  

Samantha Lingeman 
Indianapolis, IN 

I remember when I was first told I was going to be someone’s mentor. I thought to myself, “How can I be a mentor to someone when I’m so early on in my own career?”  I also wondered how other people with more experience would respond to hearing I was THEIR mentor. However, I soon realized that being a mentor didn’t have anything to do with age or the amount of experience one has.  Instead, it’s about being there for someone when they need advice, guidance, or support.  Everyone has something he/she can bring to the table. 

In the past few years I’ve grown curious about whether other people had similar mentoring misconceptions.  I began reviewing prominent articles on mentoring and came across an article from the Harvard Business Review that discussed common myths about mentorship.  I found the article very interesting, and very applicable in education. I have highlighted the key myths from the article below. 


Myths about mentoring: Posted on Harvard Business Review: February 1, 2011

Myth #1: You have to find one perfect mentor

            Many people think a mentor is one person you turn to for advise.  In reality, you may seek out many people for advice. You are more likely going to benefit from having multiple advisors to give you input.  This helps give multiple perspectives on topics, which allows you to see more of the whole picture.

Myth #2: Mentoring is a formal long-term relationship

            Because things are constantly changing and people change jobs more often today, it is unrealistic to have a long-term mentoring relationship.  Rather than thinking of mentorship as something long-term, you should think of it as something you acquire when you need it. A mentor is someone who you go to when you have questions, not only when there is something big going on in your career. However, you should still build relationships.  Advice is going to be more relevant when it comes from someone you trust and who knows you well. 

Myth #3: Mentoring is for junior people

            It is very common to think that you only need a mentor when you’re starting out in your career.  However, people from every stage in his/her career benefit from having someone (or multiple people) to go to for guidance.  Whether you are adding responsibilities to your job, changing positions, or thinking about leaving, seeking advice and guidance from a mentor can be very beneficial.  

Myth #4: Mentoring is something more experienced people do out of the goodness of their hearts

            Mentoring should be useful to every person involved.  Before seeking out a mentor (or mentees) ask yourself what you can bring to the table.  Make sure you present your prospective to your mentor and make it very clear that you are bringing valuable resources to the table as well.  Even if your resources aren’t needed at the present time, a promise for future help is very valuable. 

These myths help structure the viewpoint of what a mentor truly is. Everyone can be a mentor to someone, regardless if they are in the 10th year of their career or in the first. We all have valuable insights that can be beneficial to others; we just need to have the confidence to share them when the opportunity arises, and not be afraid to seek collaboration and feedback in the workplace.  Once we get rid of any preconceived notions of what a mentor should be, we start to realize that we can all be a mentor, and that can be a very powerful thing. 

Samantha Lingeman
Indianapolis, IN    

When honored at the end of last year with the title of “elite teacher” at PSOE, I was humbled.  I struggled with feelings of insufficiency.  Honestly, I felt unsure of what responsibilities the title might hold and my own abilities to fulfill them. 

At the same time, I was honored and proud of my accomplishment.  It felt great to be appreciated and respected for my hard work.  It was encouraging to have a new professional opportunity, and I was excited by the challenge!

Now half of the school year has passed, and I can truly say that being an “elite teacher” has been a good experience.  With opportunities for leadership, such as leading “team lead” meetings, my confidence has grown.  As part of the leadership team, I’ve also been able to be involved in activities like board retreats, where we've discussed the school’s vision and began to craft our own mission statement.   

Overall, I really enjoy working with other teachers in a mentor-type role.  Whether checking in informally or at a scheduled meeting, I love visiting with fellow teachers, being a listening ear, and guiding/helping however I can.  Being an “elite teacher” thus far has been a growing experience, one which I hope to continue.

Krista Bridenthal
Indianapolis, IN

It seems as though the term “differentiation” has become overused and under – utilized in education today.  For those teachers who have been teaching for the past 10 years, when this term is mentioned, eyes roll and sighs escape from mouths. 

What exactly does it mean to differentiate instruction?  When I hear the term, multiple factors come to mind: student ability and readiness level, student interest, student skills, outcomes, etc. How does this actually look in a classroom day-in and day-out?

There are many successful differentiation strategies used in our classrooms on a daily basis. Teachers who are delivering whole-class instruction on grade level standards are scaffolding their text levels to support readers with varying needs. When moving from the mini-lesson to station work, the concept remains the same focus, but the activities provided reflect the range of abilities of the students with whom we work.  Book clubs and tiered activities at stations are examples that happen in our school regularly.

By integrating core content into Language Arts and Math, students not only see the relationship between the subject matter, but teachers are meeting the needs of student interest as well. Students may have the opportunity to read Science text or use Social Studies content to carry-out a writing assignment.  These are also considered to be differentiated instructional strategies that hit on a very important factor in student achievement and engagement – interest.

Teachers do a great job of seeking and utilizing resources.  We are always looking for ways to engage students and find materials to support that goal.  By providing students with additional opportunities to work with technology and involve themselves in anchor activities that allow them to continue working even when they claim, “I’m done!”, we are differentiating the choices students have at school.

Additional programs we use at Paramount are community resources such as YMCA tutoring which partners our students with adults from the YMCA organization to help bridge skill gaps and focus on improvement in reading and math.

One way teachers can gather information about student needs and interests is through goal-setting activities.  When students set realistic goals, with teacher support, they are motivated to work to reach that goal.  Teachers can seek assistance from other teachers within the school setting, Special Education staff, counselors, mentor-teachers, to help students develop goals that are meaningful and inspirational to them.

There are so many other ways differentiation takes place in the classroom.  I am interested to hear what is working for you.  Please share your thoughts and ideas related to differentiated instruction that can benefit us as well as our students!

Scott Frye
Assistant Director

It’s easy to self-declare leadership. Circumstance and confidence can propel many different people into leadership. It’s also easy to say, “Now there’s a good leader!” or, “that person would make a great leader”. But, it’s harder to say what leaders actually “do” that make them successful. Even harder, how do they maintain success over time?

Whether intentionally or inherently, true leadership comes from a solid understanding of Group Dynamics. While many of us have not had formal training in Group Dynamics, it is essential that a rudimentary understanding be in place. If you look online you are likely to find a definition for Group Dynamics to be something like:

Group dynamics refers to a system of behaviors and psychological processes occurring within a social group (intragroup dynamics), or between social groups (intergroup dynamics).

The definitions can quickly become confusing psychobabble, so I like describing Group Dynamics as a simple balancing act. For instance, imagine balancing a marble on a wooden cutting board. As the marble starts to roll in any direction, you must compensate by lifting that edge of the board to stop the marble from falling off. Bringing the marble to a complete stop on the board means that you can effectively manipulate the height and angle of each side until balance is achieved through what you physically see and what you learn by moving the board (through muscle memory and trial and error).

Effective leadership through Group Dynamics is not unlike this balancing act. The marble represents your human resources or human capital (your staff, students, and even parents). The cutting board represents your toolset (communication skills, rapport building, systems, protocols, etc.) and the individual trying to maneuver the cutting board to make the marble stop rolling is you, the leader.

So, when asking how I define leadership? My simple answer is, “Balanced Group Dynamics”. Proper leadership has the capacity to bring the marble to a stop no matter how often the cutting board is adjusted, and how often the marble begins to roll in any errant direction. That involves efficient systems of communication, effective diplomacy, a driving sense of inspiration, and consistent follow through. Or, (in reduced psychobabble) dynamically operating a group so that all members of the group can move in the same direction, maintaining the system’s overall balance.

So, the next time you recognize admirable leadership, stop for a moment and change your focus. Instead of focusing on the leader, watch the group being led. Look to see how the group is compensating and maintaining the stability of the system? Sometimes it is very obvious how group supports have been scaffolded and delegated, and other times, the dynamic is subtler. But, undoubtedly, the group is well trained and ready to ebb and flow as required. So, when you have begun to observe the group being led and are beginning to draw some conclusions, try this activity:

Reflect on the procedures or protocols necessary for maintaining the balance demonstrated by the group. Then, try to write out a map of their system of supports or chain of command. Use a napkin, or a scrap of paper and map it out, or just simply play it out your mind. (I have found that this activity will hone your focus and will help refine your ability to inherently identify key components to successful systems in Group Dynamics.) Finish each reflection by asking yourself what role you would most comfortably play in that dynamic system of leadership. Would you be the marble, cutting board, or the leader?  No matter what your answer, what would you do differently with your role in that system?

In closing, successful leadership rarely happens accidentally. Effective leaders have an established system, where group dynamics ensure success over time. Poor leaders are architects of poor systems and will tend to swing unpredictably from extreme success to extreme failure, if they achieve success at all.

When carving your own personal leadership style, investing energy into the study of behavioral systems and psychological processes (Group Dynamics) will yield high returns. Try to take a more intentional and investigative role in your own Group Dynamics. That focus will elevate your level of awareness of what is being done in “your” system to ensure the marble stays still.  Over time, you may be surprised to find out that you have more control over that little marble than you ever thought was possible.

Tommy Reddicks
Indianapolis, IN

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