How to spot if you work at a toxic school

No time to eat? Constantly undermined by colleagues? Spend your weekend working? Be warned, says Tom Rogers, your school is toxic

Tom Rogers

Toxic schools_editorial

Toxic schools exist. It’s regrettable – and alarming – but they do. They’re schools in which the climate, policies and practices fuel a crisis in teacher wellbeing. Their teachers have a knot in their chest every day – one that tells them to quit or leave teaching for good. Often, they do: some are bullied out, some leave of their own accord before "burnout" strikes.

So what makes a school toxic? And how can you recognise if you’re in one?

I believe that if you experience at least 75 per cent of these factors on a regular basis, then there is a high chance you work in a toxic school.

No time to eat

The problem

Staff work through their lunches – it could be doing marking and/or planning, attending meetings, running detentions or perhaps, most notably, running “interventions”.

The solution

Basic UK employment law states an uninterrupted 20-minute break as a minimum every day. In a toxic school, many staff power through an entire day on a semi-regular basis without the chance to go to the toilet.

Interestingly, the law also stipulates that every employee should get at least 11 hours a day uninterrupted rest between working days. These are statutory requirements so often flaunted by schools and by teachers themselves, pressurised into giving up their basic rights. Although not the answer in itself, it offers a legal standing to any individual looking to challenge a situation effectively.

No empathy

The problem

Colleagues who are painfully unaware of how others might feel based on their behaviour.

The solution

Identifying the “why” in the person exhibiting the behaviour is a good start. I found this paragraph from the Ivy Business Journal useful:

“The key to changing problematic behaviour is to understand what factors drive it and then prepare an intervention to affect these underlying factors. It is not enough to realise that the person is rigid, aggressive or narcissistic. Effective interventions depend upon what is driving the difficult behaviour, and not what appears on the surface. Interventions that would lead to a positive change in a manager with one underlying personality type could intensify the problematic behaviour of someone with another personality type. For example, both aggressive and rigid behaviour may be driven by fear and insecurity, by cluelessness, or by a ruthless desire to dominate and control people. Managers whose aggression or rigidity arises from fear and insecurity are likely to improve if treated with tolerance and reassurance.

Tolerance of toxic behaviour arising from ruthlessness, however, is likely to exacerbate the situation. Similarly, while a strong negative response to aggressive or rigid behaviour may deter someone who is ruthless, it could increase the anxiety and tension of someone who is driven by fear, and thereby worsen the problem. The better you understand how other people view the world and what motivates them, the better you will be able to influence their behaviour.”

Backstabbing and bullying

The problem

This can show itself in a variety of ways. “CC’ing” people into passive aggressive emails to make a point, naming and shaming "departments", highlighting the flaws of individuals continuously, making constant and unfair demands on an individual’s time. Beyond that it could be more personal: the blanking, whispering, clubbing together, weaponising the students and parents against a teacher, undermining teachers publicly and so on.

The solution

Employers have an obligation to act on bullying under the Health and Safety in Work Act of 1974. The law includes a statute on “welfare”, which bullying comes under. Start by making a detailed log of everything that happens in a notebook with time and date stamps. If it continues, arrange a meeting with the headteacher to discuss your concerns, bring a fellow (and trusted) member of staff with you. Read out from your pre-prepared log of events that have happened. If you don’t think the head will listen or act, by having the meeting you are at least making this an issue that can’t be ignored. Continue to log everything.

If nothing changes, call or email your HR department to make them aware of everything that’s happened so far, including the meeting with the headteacher. At this stage, it may be worth considering a formal complaint. While all this is going on, try to establish a support network in school and beyond to help you through. Make them aware of the “general” situation without necessarily naming names and just say you’d appreciate a chat from time to time. If you feel trapped, try not to worry – there is a way through and out of this situation, it might just take a while.

Weekend working, weekend worrying

The problem

Major workload issues, the pressure to do more and more in your spare time.  

The solution

There’s two elements to this: workload and worrying. Teachers can reduce their own workload but can also suggest ways in which their school could adopt better practices. I’ve written two articles on workload reduction for the Tes – things like centralising detentions, minimising data drops and collaborative planning.

In terms of worrying, we all know the old adage that “worrying won’t change a thing” – and it’s true. Further than that, it’s always pertinent to ask the question: “Will my action/inaction this weekend (or evening) have any significant negative influence on the bulk of students I teach?”

Other checklist items for a toxic school include things like:

– Stressed children and adults.

– 100 per cent accountability on teachers, and none for students and parents.

– Constant “checking”, learning walks, book scrutinies etc.

– Fear of speaking out.

If you recognise these signs and know that you work in a toxic school, I’m sorry. No one deserves to go through this stuff. Whatever you do – do something. And remember, sometimes the grass really is greener. Not every school is toxic.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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