Be careful how you talk about previous students/trainees

I’ve been on a couple of courses recently where the trainers talked about previous clients in a way I found uncomfortable. One was chatting idly about them during breaks and the other was using the unfortunate punters’ mishaps as cautionary tales.

In other contexts, gossip can facilitate bonding, “its primary function being the building and maintenance of social relationships”, according to anthropologists. But, as a trainer, lecturer or teacher, you are in a position of responsibility, which carries an implicit expectation of discretion and confidentiality. Apart from the risk that someone on today’s course may know the person you’re talking about who attended previously, there’s always the nagging question, if you talk so freely about those not present, what might you say to the next group about me? Even if your comments don’t end up rebounding (as discussed in this article about a New York Sports Club), it’s bad practice.

The cautionary-tales thing is less clear-cut. Referring to previous trainees’ mistakes can be a tactful way of drawing attention to potential pitfalls: you’re not suggesting the current group would make this kind of error, merely letting them know that some people do, and thereby allowing them to learn from the earlier students’ experience. This technique is a good one, as long as you keep it general. As soon as you make the individual identifiable, the focus shifts from the blunder to the perpetrator and your teaching point has flipped into gossip.

As with talking about yourself, the litmus test is whether what you’re telling your students is for their benefit or yours. I’ve made this flowchart for your ease of reference 🙂

To tell or not to tell anecdotes about previous students or trainees