Judge Not Your Classmates

Five steps to turn students’ gossiping into a teachable moment

By Mary Lou Rosien

One day, in my class, the gossip turned nasty. A classmate was struggling and had stopped coming to school. The rumors and finger-pointing started. I listened for a while, and then decided that, especially in a Catholic school, this could not continue. I decided to turn it into a teachable moment.


Here are five points that can help you to accomplish this goal, too, when you face gossiping in your classroom.

1 Use literature and class projects to help create a social autopsy of the problem.

We read books that emphasized not judging someone by what you think you know about them, such as The Shadow of the Bear by Regina Doman. The main character is not at all what he appears to be. The contrast is so stark that my class questioned my judgment in making them read about such a “bad guy.” By the end of the book (spoiler alert!), I had made my point, as the students recognized the true heroic nature of that character.

2 Discuss times when students have felt misjudged, mislabeled, gossiped about, or bullied.

I shared with my students a painful story of when I was in sixth grade and a group of other students put me in a chair and walked around me making fun of me. I described how this experience shaped me, expressing how I made a decision to return their mean act with kindness.

When I run into these people today, I explained, they only remember how nice I was to them and not how they treated me. I showed my students that this was a victory in my eyes.

Most people don’t realize how much they are hurting others. They want to be part of the group and may even be afraid other kids will turn on them if they don’t participate.

3 Demonstrate how Catholic teachings and principles apply in situations of gossip or bullying.

Review how God created each of us with dignity and how we are called to treat ourselves and others with this same dignity.

“Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258).

Any of the seven principles may apply to the way students treat each other. Life and Dignity of the Human Person; Call to Family, Community, and Participation; and Solidarity have a direct link to this issue.

Whenever we look at the dignity with which God created us, we are reminded that all human life is sacred. It is the foundation for all the other principles. We can help our students recognize the dignity of those they don’t like, are angry with, or find easy to judge.

In the Call to Family, Community, and Participation, we are called to respect each other as part of one catholic community and family. People have a right and a duty to take part in community. We should help make that community a loving environment for all.

Solidarity is equally important. We remember that no matter what ethnic, racial, or economic background we come from, we are equal in God’s eyes and should be in each other’s. Our faith calls us into common community with each other, a love without borders.

4 Study stories of how the saints overcame gossip and what they had to say about gossip.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the “Little Flower,” had a very soft heart. As a young teen she would burst into tears if anyone criticized her in any way. However, as she grew in holiness, she learned to offer up every little suffering. She found even criticism and gossip a chance to humble herself and suffer for God. She turned a negative into great holiness through love and humility.

St. Euphrasia of Constantinople was also said to have been the victim of vicious gossip. She was an orphan and a foreigner who had a heart for the poor and tried to keep her mind and heart on God.

St. Francis de Sales believed that the worst sin was gossip and urged others to be kind in speaking to one another — and even in judging themselves.

Saints, being the victims of gossip, have given instruction to the faithful in how to respond to this problem.

5 Explore ways to stand up for others.

By applying the new lessons learned and reviewing Catholic principles, help students brainstorm ways to stand up for those being gossiped about or bullied. Consider role-playing and practicing an alternative, positive way for kids to react when they find themselves present in such situations.

Talk about the spiritual strength gained by frequenting the sacraments, especially from the Eucharist and reconciliation. Explain that confession is helpful if one has been participating in gossip or bullying. Providing them with an examination of conscience may also help.

Young people need to be reminded of the grace waiting for them through the sacraments of the Catholic Church. I like to tell them they can “strengthen their armor” by receiving the sacraments often.

Help students identify gossip and recognize how it can become bullying. Dillon Duke, a blogger at LifeTeen.com, states, “Another thing to contemplate when hearing a rumor or when you might be about to retell a rumor is a simple, ‘Would the people involved in this story be okay with people, or me, saying this certain thing about them?’” This is a wonderful litmus test to teach students when they are considering repeating gossip.

Sometimes opportunity arrives disguised as bad behavior. In retrospect, almost every difficult situation provides an opportunity for education and change.

“As a teacher at both public high schools previously and a Catholic high school today, I can recognize the impact that daily prayer and devotion have on our teenagers’ behavior. Students in a Catholic school are not angels, but they do recognize the seven Catholic principles, are willing to discuss them with you, and, though it is a stretch for some, are able to see their own behavior struggles as it relates to others.” — Janelle Hertz, physics teacher at Miami-Dade County Public Schools

As educators we can use these conflicts as ways to train the minds and hearts of our students in the truths of the Catholic faith. Curriculum, evaluation of circumstances, principles, modeling of appropriate behavior, and the teachings of Catholicism can all be utilized to change the atmosphere in our classrooms.

Image credit: Shutterstock 418801225

Image credit: Shutterstock 418801225

Examination of Conscience: Reviewing Commandments

Thou shall not kill: This commandment includes injuring another person or “killing” their character or reputation.

Thou shall not bear false witness against another: Lying, half-truths, and many forms of gossip fall under this commandment.

Thou shall not covet: Jealousy can easily lead to gossip and bullying.

Thou shall not steal: Stealing can include injuring someone’s good name or reputation, or pretending to be that person on social media.

Sue Scheff identifies 10 sites used to spread gossip that can become bullying through social media:

Chat rooms

Mary Lou Rosien is a former English teacher and current substitute teacher, Confirmation teacher, Pre-Cana instructor, and RCIA coordinator/teacher.

Image credit: Shutterstock 418801225

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