cafeteria cliques and middle school melodrama: adult culture in schools


For the last few months, I have had the opportunity of being on my school’s hiring committee. In countless interviews, this question has risen from the mouths of the candidates: “How is the culture in this building?” As well it should. Though the work we do is with students, often the fuel to be successful there comes from the environment in which we exist, from the adults with which we collaborate. As in any school, our adult culture is defined by both strengths and weaknesses. Typically, when I answer this question, I say something along the lines: “Each of us creates the culture; it is a matter of aligning with those who are moving forward.” Today I write to attempt to define what “moving forward” looks like.

I recognize that the idea of “adult culture” is not unique to those who work in a school environment. Nor is gossip–the life blood of water cooler meet-ups and front porch rocking sessions. After all, over the past few months, as I’ve been ruminating about this very topic, I’ve read several articles I found in a generous Google search: “The Danger of Workplace Gossip” and “10 Reasons Why It’s Good to Gossip at Work.” But, what I do think is critically different, is that there is far more riding on a school’s adult culture. Every day, every interaction in the hall, every group of adults gathered in a corner chatting, every isolated teacher, every closed door “meeting” is watched closely by little, learning sponges: children, becoming adults, who are in the process of figuring out how to navigate the world of obvious and subtle social cues, the minefield of trust and betrayal, the dynamics of inner circle versus outer circle, the challenges of conflict resolution. They are the true sentinels of social maneuvering–always observing, always forming.

As I define what “moving forward” looks like, I also treat this as a confession of sorts, to those who have watched my model and learned unhealthy community approaches. This is how I want to move forward. This is how I want to be at work. This is how I want be as an honorable woman trying to love God.

  • Moving forward means emptying your cup–a much needed part of life–in your most inner, trusted circle. Find your people, and keep it there.
  • Moving forward also means deconstructing the contents of that cup. Many times this year, I have talked with my students about the cycle of oppression. Those who are oppressed oppress others. Those who are insecure break down others. Those who need validation invalidate others. When I am emptying my cup…what is really going on? What do I need to look at in myself, first and foremost?
  • Moving forward means holding closely your inner circle, while still being inclusive. Love is boundless and can, and should, go beyond my people.
  • Moving forward means surrendering the power of being “in the know.” Sometimes I want to know, just because I’m curious. Sometimes I want to know, just because I want to be in the “in group.” Sometimes I want to know, just because sharing it gives me power.
  • Moving forward means being mindful of time. It saddens me how easy it is to complain of “having no time,” when that very time complaining could be used for something productive. It falls on my shoulders to know when to empty my cup, and when to put it aside to get sh** done. It also empowers me. So often I complain of all the things I cannot control, but if I just made use of my time controlling what I can, I would feel so much better.
  • Moving forward means emptying your cup, then washing it–at least most of the time. If I complain for complaints’ sake, that is wasted time. But, if I complain to move forward, to figure things out, to have solutions, that is productive, that is honorable. That is what I want my students to see. How can I speak out against what is wrong and/or bothering me, while also having a hand–however insignificant–in creating a more positive outcome?

Ultimately, moving forward at its core is about energy. What kind of energy do I cultivate within me? What kind of energy to I radiate? What kind of energy do I surround myself with?

Recently, a colleague and friend recommended the documentary I AM. Watching a mere once has rocked my world, specifically the research done at The Institute of HeartMath. One of their explorations is the idea that the emotions I feel affect YOU… yes, symbolically of course, but My emotions affect you emotionally, physically. There is some sort of invisible, scientific, spiritual connection among those around me. So in school, my very being affects the beings around me.

What a call to be a better being.