Teach & Serve IV, No. 37
April 17, 2019
If you say or write the word “confidential” without asking, each-and-every-time, “whose interest am I protecting by walling off this knowledge?” you are doing it wrong.
There is power in knowing something other people do not know. There is magic in holding onto a secret, in deciding when to tell, and who to tell. There is a draw to being in the know, in the loop, in the inner circle.
We have all felt it, right? At one point or another, we have had those moments when we found something out before most others did or when we heard the story prior to it getting out.
What is it about being in on the secret that is so enticing?
In school settings, there are hundreds of examples – daily – of things that not everyone needs to know. There are situations with students that should not be revealed. There are personnel issues that should not be broadly discussed. There are decisions that should not be shared too soon. In school settings, there are good reasons to maintain confidentiality – some of them legal, some of them moral and some of them valid.
But not all.
Beware of the word “confidential.” Use it sparingly. Use it wisely. Use it only when you must use it. If you say or write the word “confidential” without asking, each-and-every-time, “whose interest am I protecting by walling off this knowledge?” you are doing it wrong.
Schools work best when knowledge is shared. That is kind of what they are there for, right? Schools work best when everyone knows as much as they possibly can know. How many times are we going to have to be confronted by stories of school personnel that had knowledge of warning signs about students that they did not share until tragedy struck? How many times are we going to see reports of colleagues suspecting something was not quite right with a co-worker and they did not tell anyway until it was too late? How many times before we get it?
When I was a dean of students and, later, an assistant principal and a now a principal, there were and are many things I did not and do not broadly share. Further, there were and are things that I was and am constrained to not share at all, by law and by valid concerns about confidentiality. There were and are things I did not and do not share because of potential damage of all kinds.
Yes, there are things that should not and cannot be shared.
But these things are few. And these things are far between.
When the default position of a teacher or administrator when confronted by sensitive information is to hold all those cards as closely to the vest as possible, to prize secrets and horde them, to equate knowledge of what is going on in people’s lives with power, something is very, very wrong.
The work of an educational professional is not to work to keep things secret, the work is to bring things to light and understanding.
Those teachers and administrators that get a charge from knowing more than everyone else have forgotten that and they are doing something foolish and potentially dangerous – foolish because, at some point, keeping secrets for no reason undercuts rather than strengthens moral authority and dangerous because, inevitably, things go wrong, and things get out. Those teachers and administrators that repeat – as a mantra – “I can’t tell you that. It’s confidential.” are not doing themselves or anyone else any favors.
Teachers and administrators, here is the thing: what must be, by law, confidential, must be confidential. Period. If it is illegal to share, do not share. If you do not know the law, learn it.
When you know what actually must be kept confidential, file it and share everything else.
Share as much knowledge about students as possible. Share as much about staff as appropriate. Share as much about the state of the school as you can. Create an environment where sharing is the default position.
Beware the word “confidential” and only use it when you must.