Over the past few years, teachers on social media have used the phrase “toxic schools” to encapsulate a variety of situations – from schools that are negative environments for pupils to those that actually appear to damage the mental health of staff who work within them.
One of the main issues with the phrase is that it is hard to define: one teacher’s “toxic school” where they feel constantly under pressure could be another’s focused work environment. We need to be able to distinguish where an individual response to not enjoying a workplace ends and where a toxic work environment starts.
The difference between having a challenging day at work and a toxic school environment can be hard to define. Ask yourself this question: does the leadership at your school know of the issues but seem unable or unwilling to change it? Answering “yes” starts to narrow down exactly what a toxic school is.
School leaders set the cultural tone and they are involved in the creation of both the visible and invisible culture. The visible culture of a school includes the mission statement, displays in the corridors, and the type of badge on a blazer. What is important in identifying a toxic school is the invisible culture that is behind this visible veneer. This is the lived experiences of those within the school. While harder to see, it is possible to catch glimpses of it in the way you are greeted by staff at reception to how pupils are spoken to by staff as they move around the building. A toxic school has a negative school culture were even the best teachers may fail to grow.
Some teachers may pick up on this toxic culture during the interview process while others, through inexperience or the simple need for a job, may not be fully aware until they have started work. A variety of different characteristics can be seen in a toxic school, from repeated restructuring to bureaucracy. Two of the most apparent to new staff, or even those on interview, are “balkanisation” and a “hothouse” environment.
Balkanised schools are those where staff are split into distinct groups. This may be due to a building designed to keep departments separate or from a long term trend to staff only socialising with others in their group. If you walk into a staffroom and find that seats are reserved for certain staff or that the LSAs only sit with LSAs then you are witnessing a balkanised school. As a teacher in a school like this you can look for whole school projects to take part in. This might be as simple as arranging a charity day or applying for an award such as an ArtsMark. You can also seek to cross the divide yourself by developing an informal “critical friend” mentor with another colleague to either help with career development or refine an aspect of your practice.
A hothouse school is one where staff feel under constant pressure. These are the schools where there might be a rigid policy on marking, planning, and mounting displays. The leadership requires staff to follow all the guidance given on every occasion even when the impact on pupil performance is negligible and the workload unsustainable within the working week.
As a teacher in a school like this, you need to build in time to reflect and plan. Making time for reflection in an already busy day may seem counterintuitive but it is seeing those moments as necessary and beneficial. Taking a step back for a few moments can help you to clarify that it is not your inability to teach that is the issue but the environment you are working within. Reflection can also help you to plan your time better – try using a Time Management Matrix. Using this simple tool can help you to get perspective on what is really urgent and important and what can wait till later.
The most important thing we can do as a profession to prevent toxic schools is to give space and time for teachers to share their voice and experiences of working in them. Many teachers feel uncomfortable doing this out of fear for their careers which is why they either stay hidden or share their experiences through trusted relationships on platforms like Twitter.
One alternative way of sharing these voices is through fictionalised narratives that protect individual identity yet allow their experiences to be heard by the wider profession. They can allow teachers to share personal and sensitive information in an ethical and anonymous way.
Sharing our experiences of toxic schools benefits those telling but also allows others to realise that they are not alone in the feelings that they have. The more we share our collective experiences, the more able we will be to change the culture of our schools so that no teacher experiences a toxic setting.
Helen Woodley is a teacher and the co-author of Toxic Schools: How to avoid them and how to leave them