Does Your School Have a Toxic Culture?
Some schools are positive, encouraging places to work. You feel that your contributions are valued. Others are more like dark, gloomy places that you can’t wait to leave. What makes the difference? The atmosphere in a school can affect the way you teach and the way you feel about teaching. If you’re not sure about your school, Toxic School Culture (A Beginner’s Guide) is a good starting point.
Are Schools a Toxic Environment?
No school is perfectly happy all the time. You’re always going to have frustrations, irritating colleagues and troublesome students.
Still, some schools seem to create an atmosphere that makes them miserable places to work. These schools aren’t just going through a rough patch. They are toxic.
What Does the Term Mean?
In simple terms, a toxic workplace is one where nobody is able to do their job with satisfaction. There are few opportunities for collaboration or for personal growth. Nobody feels encouraged to try new things or come up with creative solutions.
In a school setting, that atmosphere can have negative effects on students, teachers and administrators.
How to Recognize a Toxic Environment
How do you know if your school is toxic? Here are some warning signs.
1. The teachers express negative views about the students’ capabilities, personalities and interests.
2. Students express little interest in learning, getting good grades or getting along with their teachers.
3. Teachers don’t help each other with advice or support.
4. Teachers blame students for their inability to learn.
5. The school has rules that reinforce these negative attitudes.
What’s Causing the Problem?
What is contributing to the negative environment in schools? It could come from several sources.
Students’ attitudes are often a reflection of the school atmosphere, but they can also bring their own negativity into school. Students who bully other students are a well-known problem that has received a great deal of media attention in recent years. Every school has at least a few students who seem to enjoy making their peers as miserable as possible.
One other type of bullying is not talked about as often. There are students who bully their teachers. According to The Educator’s Room, there is an epidemic of students bullying teachers.
Students have made nasty remarks to teachers, physically assaulted them, thrown things at them and defamed them on social media.
“Teachers being bullied by their own students occurs more often than most people realize, and often this is a form of bullying that goes unreported,” writes science teacher Sarah Sorge. “In the event that it is reported, sometimes nothing occurs or very little is done in terms of student discipline by the higher powers-that-be from in-the-school administration.”
Student bullying of teachers does not get the same media attention that student bullying of other students does. It is a growing problem that has been building for years.
In 2011, education researcher Dorothy Espelage conducted a study of teachers and found that many had been bullied or cyberbullied by their students. Espelage found that their top reason for leaving the profession was that “they can’t handle the disrespect.”
Teachers can also be responsible for creating a negative atmosphere. This happens when they forget to treat each other with respect.
On the SimplyKinder blog, a frustrated teacher named Jennifer posted a long open letter to teachers who bully other teachers. In the letter, she listed several traits of teachers who bully. Among them were:
- Bragging about or putting down an entire class of students.
- Criticizing teachers who want to try new approaches.
- Excluding other teachers from important discussions.
- ”Tattling” on other teachers to the administration staff.
- Criticizing the way their colleagues teach.
- Refusing to accept changes in school rules or priorities.
As Jennifer concluded, “Enough is enough. We are all here for the students, and we all have different viewpoints and beliefs on teaching, learning and the business side of education. We as professionals need to find a way to get along, respect one another and not make anybody feel inferior because of our differences. We should celebrate those differences the same as we do with our students!”
Writing at Fuelgreatminds, educator Michelle Williams posted the letter and asked her readers if they had ever experienced bullying from other teachers.
According to Williams, “When I posted it, I really didn’t expect to get many likes or responses to the post. Boy, was I wrong! There were so many responses from teachers who had experienced bullying or were currently experiencing bullying that it was unreal.”
Several teachers responded in comments that they had been bullied by other teachers and by the administrators at their schools.
It’s clear that teacher bullying is a workplace problem that deserves a mention. It could contribute to a toxic workplace environment.
Ready to Escape Your Classroom?
Administrators are often the ones who set the tone for a school. If an administrator or principal is supportive and open to hearing from teachers, the atmosphere is likely to be positive.
Principals are also the people in the best position to introduce changes that will lead to a more positive environment. There are certainly some bad principals out there, but most of them want to create a positive atmosphere for learning as much as their teachers do.
Education World published an interview with Kent Peterson, co-author with Terrence Deal of the book Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership. The book takes an in-depth look at schools that manage to foster real growth for students and teachers.
In the interview, Peterson said that shifting a school to a more positive environment is not a monumentally difficult job.
He said schools needed to look closely at the sources of their negative environment. He also offered suggestions for creating a more positive, collaborative environment:
- Take time out to celebrate the accomplishments of students, student groups and individual teachers.
- Use staff meetings to announce and celebrate successes.
- Foster a commitment and a plan to help each teacher grow professionally.
- Determine that teachers will work together to help all students succeed.
- Develop plans that take teacher and student needs into account.
- Foster an atmosphere of collegiality.
A Teacher’s Advice
Pernille Ripp, a teacher and author of the book Passionate Readers, wrote about toxic schools on her blog.
Ripp advises teachers and administrators to first look at themselves to make sure they’re not the ones bringing negativity with them. She also offers solutions for mitigating a hostile environment by treating each other with respect.
“I know we all have bad days,” writes Ripp, “but sometimes those bad days become bad years without us even realizing it. A school’s culture is never too late to fix, but it does take a decision to do something about it. And that decision can be made by us. Every single day.”
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Ready to Escape Your Classroom?