I hesitate to reveal this secret. I feel like I am breaking some teacher code, but I am compelled to tell you. Teachers everywhere, at all kinds of schools, talk negatively about their students. It is not the way things should be. It is the way things are. To be sure, not all teachers talk negatively about students, but it is difficult to find a school; urban, suburban, or rural, where there is not at least a handful of teachers who do. As difficult as it may be to imagine, even in the exclusive world of private and charter schools where challenging students are quickly expelled or refused readmission, many teachers still find ways to engage in this destructive behavior.
The vocal few are sometimes referred to as “toxic teachers.” Just like any other toxin, these teachers have a way of spreading their disease of negativity. In their opinion, rarely does anything go right in the school. There is always something to complain about, and there is always someone who will listen. Because every day there is a small window known as lunch, and the teachers’ lounge is holding “open mic.” Toxic teachers speak up. They are always willing to share their pessimism with others. For this reason, teachers’ lounges are sometimes avoided by teachers interested in what social justice looks like at school.
But too often well-meaning teachers (not the toxic few) get sucked into speaking negatively about students because of subtle peer pressure within the teachers’ lounge environment. It is a coping mechanism in the midst of a difficult day, a way to “blow off steam.” I was guilty of this unhealthy habit my first few years of teaching. My classroom “management” skills were not what they should have been, and “ragging” on particular students to other teachers became a strange way to manufacture the courage necessary to finish the day without quitting.
One of the many problems with speaking negatively about students is that it is a reflection of the way teachers think about students. And the combination of thoughts and words has a way of manifesting in a teacher’s behavior toward students. The best way to change the way teachers think and behave toward students is to change the way teachers speak about students. So in my third year of teaching I decided I wasn’t going to talk negatively about students to other teachers. The immediate result, however, was that I simply replaced all the negative student talk with negative teacher and administrator talk. My speech became less likely to be racist (I am a white teacher teaching mostly students of color), but it certainly was not anything resembling professional. I was not contributing to the health of my school culture.
A teachers’ lounge where the tone is set by “toxic” teachers is at best a place where positive school culture is destroyed by misguided complaints about administration and at worst a place where implicit bias matures into full-blown unchecked racism. When off-handed remarks about particular students are expanded and a discussion about “this neighborhood,” “these parents,” or “kids these days,” ensues, participating teachers should beware. White teachers at majority non-white schools should pay special close attention to teachers’ lounge language. The teachers’ lounge should be a safe space; not a safe space for teachers to say whatever the hell they want, but a space safe from disparagement of any kind.
But what if the tone in the teachers’ lounge is set by positivity instead of negativity? Teachers’ lounges can be a vital part of what it means to be a teacher, especially at the elementary and middle school level. High schools are often too big for teachers’ lounges to play the uniting role that, for instance, the teachers’ lounge at my middle school does. Teaching is a profession where colleague interaction is a precious commodity. Lunch in the teachers’ lounge creates at least the possibility for daily peer-to-peer professional learning, development, and encouragement. For me, that is something worth speaking up for, something worth fighting for.
So I am not leaving the teachers’ lounge. And you shouldn’t either.