Toxic School Culture (A Beginner’s Guide)

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

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

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.

School System

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.

What Can Schools and 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.”

An Alternative to Staying in the Classroom

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  • No need to work for someone else.

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16 thoughts on “Toxic School Culture (A Beginner’s Guide)”

  1. Hi Nancy

    That was a very informative and eye-opening post. You reminded me of a news clip I read where a teacher was breaking up a fight between some students and ended up being hospitalized for her efforts.

    Also, I believe that the students these days are just different than when I was in school. We had more respect for teachers and we listened. We had a fear of going to the principal’s office or our parent’s finding out.  

    But, I also believe that it is the teacher’s responsibility to create an atmosphere of positivity and fun within the classroom. Most kids already feel like they have so much against them.  Going to a dull, negative classroom would not help.

    You mentioned teachers bullying teachers; what a disgrace. How does that help the students or foster a place comradery?

    I feel for teachers, principals and students alike these days. The educational system needs to be revamped. And, raise the teachers pay, they deserve it!

    Thank you, Nancy, for such an amazing post full of information that needed to be made known.   

    Much Success

    Eric

    Reply
    • Hi Eric,

      People may roll their eyes, but I believe the answer to the difference between students when you were in school and today’s students is discipline.  As you mentioned, there were real consequences if you didn’t behave, and you knew it.  Consequences that make an impact on students are almost non-existent in today’s schools.  

      After several years in the classroom, I’m convinced that what we are witnessing is the result of a very lax, permissive society.   When people don’t value one another, everything suffers.

      Thanks for the very kind words, and thanks for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

      Best,

      Nancy

      Reply
  2. Hi!  

    I never even considered that students could bully teachers and I kind of feel stupid for this because some kids are pretty hateful to each other and their families.  Why NOT the teachers too?  

    That really does make it harder to be a teacher in this digital age where anyone feels they can anonymously attack anyone whenever they feel like it.  

    Thanks for the article, it was eye-opening!

    Reply
    • There are so many reasons it’s hard to be a teacher, and you mentioned one of the newest.  Students are free to post anything they choose, and teachers are often their targets!  When you consider that it’s usually an angry child lashing out, it makes it more frustrating.  It’s impossible to deal with the problem in a reasonable, constructive way.  

      Thanks for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

      Reply
  3. All i can say is…. WOW! Not enough attention is brought to situations like this, and I commend you!! Teachers who are stuck dealing with such an environment is just as disturbing as students who are forced to deal with that same kind of environment. And, it is only a ‘lose-lose’ scenario. There is no future for anyone involved. But, those who are stuck in it either do not realize what is happening or don’t know what they can do to change it. Information is key!!
    Excellent article! Thank you!

    Reply
    • Information is indeed the key.  It’s hard to realize how awful a situation is when is builds slowly, day by day.  You just assume it’s normal, and the same for everyone else.  I hope that by having enough information, teachers and students who recognize themselves will feel empowered to make positive changes in their lives.

      Thanks so much for the kinds words, and thanks for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

      Reply
  4. Nancy, I will say that I am not a teacher but I very well do have experience working in a toxic environment.  I also have experience working in a productive and happy workplace and environment so I really appreciate seeing the difference.  

    Unfortunately I was stuck in my career with a toxic workplace the last 20 years or so.  I worked as a Postal clerk for over 37 years and experienced the downturn of the USPS.  When I started it was wonderful and remained that way until just before the turn of the century when automation was taking over.  

    Management was being taught to only value numbers and not the efforts of their employees.  They would blame unions when it was always in the best interest for us all to succeed.  

    It is so sad to see this situation in the public schools if it is anything like I experienced in my last few years.  I worked part-time jobs where my supervisors shook my hand and thanked me for coming in and doing a good job.  What a relief to be treated with respect!  

    One of my uncles was a school superintendent in a small school district but always uplifting and encouraging people to be and do their best.

    Like some teachers, I experienced the bad apples in the bunch too. I had some supervisors I thought the world of, but the overall situation just went on a downward spiral, and it would not surprise me to see the privatization and break up of the USPS soon unless some radical change takes place.  

    It is great that you have pointed out Wealthy Affiliate as a possible option and with a teacher’s writing skills should be an option for those that are seeking an alternative.  Thank you for all of this great information.

    Reply
    • Twenty years is far too long to endure such an unpleasant work environment!  I’m glad you’ve had pleasant ones are well.  I think it’s colleagues and administrators like your uncle that encourage people to give the job just a bit longer in hopes things will turn around for the better.

      As you mentioned, having someone do something as simple as shake your hand and let you know you’re appreciated can make a world of difference.  

      Thank you so much for the kinds words.  I appreciate them, and I appreciate you joining the conversation!

      Reply
  5. Really interesting article.  I feel very fortunate that my kids’ schools so far seem to do a really good job of addressing these kinds of issues and creating a positive atmosphere for the entire school community (my son’s school has a school climate committee specifically focused on that).

    I taught English overseas for one year, though, and can relate to this article even based on just that one year.  Probably the most demoralizing thing I experienced was when my department head questioned the grades two students (twin sisters) had earned in my class, trying to pressure me into giving them better grades simply because they “normally” had all As, and their parents were complaining to the school.  Even after I explained that their grades were brought down by getting zeros on a quiz for cheating, she was still flustered.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if she changed their grades before report cards were finalized.  Ugh.

    Anyway, thank you for this, I enjoyed reading it!

    Reply
    • First, I’m glad to hear your childrens’ schools are doing a good job.  Many schools do.  Secondly, I’m sorry you had such an unpleasant experience in the overseas school.  I would not be surprised if your department head did exactly what you suspect.  Not a good lesson for the twins.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and appreciate you joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

      Reply
  6. Thank you for your very thorough information you have provided here.

    My sister is a High School Teacher and I don’t think she is very happy where she teaches. She often takes her frustrations out on other family members and she’s driving my Elderly parents mad with worry.

    Even though she would never admit it, I do think her moody attitude is because of a toxic school environment as you have explained.

    I’m going to buy your book and try and slip into her bag when she’s not looking.

    Wish me luck, Jeff.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear that your sister is in such an unhappy situation.  A toxic school environment can certainly turn a pleasant person into someone you’d like to avoid.

      Thanks so much for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

      Reply
  7. Unfortunately, anytime bullying in schools is being talked on, my first thought has always been that teachers are often the biggest bullies in schools. When I think about my own time in school, truly, there were bullies by different kids. Be that as it may, teachers have always been the worse. Thanks for this insightful write-up, Nancy.

    Reply
    • As my article mentioned, teachers can be terrible bullies.   Some of them bully students.   My grandson, and most of his classmates, were bullied by one of his teachers this year!  Some bully other teachers.  I’ve even known one teacher who bullied the principal on a regular basis.  None of these scenarios are acceptable!  

      Thanks for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

      Reply
  8. Hi Nancy, your post just let me know that every work has its own challenges, even teaching.  It is very frustrating in a toxic environment.  I really love your post because I shared the topic among teacher friends, and some of them are experiencing this type of challenge.  I would not have thought this is happening if not for your post. Thanks for mentioning solutions.   Among the solutions is helping teachers to know that with their experiences, they can turn them to earning in Wealthy Affiliate.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for the kind words.  I believe Wealthy Affiliate is an excellent way for teachers to use their skills and experiences in wonderful new ways.  They can use their knowledge and interests, and build a business that is uniquely their own.  It’s a win/win opportunity.

      Thanks for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

      Reply

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