We must protect teachers from toxic school environments

We need to use all the tools at our disposal – social media and Ofsted – to call out and end toxic school environments

Tom Rogers

Toxic school environment_editorial

I recently declared on social media: “There is a bullying epidemic in schools. Teachers scared to approach their bosses, scared to say they are struggling, scared to not meet a stupid target. Power tripping people veiling themselves as erstwhile professionals. Joke and criminal.”

I currently receive regular messages via my Twitter account from teachers who are downtrodden, isolated and anxious; their self-esteem shattered by policies and people who, whether intentionally or otherwise, are causing untold suffering. The responses to that tweet were extensive. There was a groundswell of anger, but also a debate on how widespread this 'bullying' might be. 

On the back of that tweet, I received a direct message from a maths teacher who preferred to remain anonymous. She shared the emails here and images here:

She insisted these emails weren't unusual in her school. They were sent on the last week of term, when teachers are exhausted. This stuff is not uncommon. The charity Education Support Partnership responded to that tweet saying: “It is this kind of culture that drives up the stress and anxiety levels of teachers and others. It's a common story given by callers to our helpline for their distress.” I heard from another teacher who was asked to write 200 PowerPoint presentations in two years for staff to use – the only feedback received was that the wrong colour scheme and font was used.

No amount of policy reform can halt this; this is a human problem.

This perfectly captures much that drives the retention crisis; notably colleagues treating each other with a lack of compassion and respect. I use the word "colleagues" here because I think it's important not to go down the easy route of saying this is a problem with leadership – I don’t think it's confined to a particular group in schools.

I’m interested to know where these kinds of actions and attitudes come from. I’m honestly not sure. Perhaps different drivers for different people? Perhaps a human insecurity in some, especially as they take on leadership roles? A lack of emotional intelligence? A mistaken view of what leaders should be or do? Perhaps some of it is driven by the intense pressure excessive and unfair accountability puts on teachers? Either way, this is what is driving teachers out of the profession. So, what can be done about it?

Personally, I’m going to continue to publicise these kinds of things as much as possible to raise awareness of the plight of teachers who are suffering in schools. Social media can be a powerful tool these days in this regard. What we need to consider is that newly qualified teachers could unknowingly be entering this environment in September – a truly saddening and sobering thought.

Do we have a duty of care to the profession as a whole to root out this stuff and try and stop it? Or at the very least, allow people to make informed choices before they take jobs on. I’ve already spoken about the need for retention figures to be published somewhere. Yes, there can be an indication given as to why a person has left but at least this information, as a trend, might give teachers some “lines of inquiry” on a prospective place of employment.

Exit interviews should be legally required and conducted by an external and unbiased agency. Again, this information could be anonymously shared on request by those seeking employment at a particular school on the proviso that the information is not publicly shared.

I’m thinking out loud here, but I don’t believe that the interview day or a pre-arranged school visit is enough to “see” the real ethos and atmosphere of a school – good or bad. I'm of the view that Ofsted needs radical reform, but if it is to remain in its current form with its inspection framework, then surely it needs to take a much more serious look at schools' approach to staff wellbeing and retention?

We have to find ways of protecting the teachers we have from environments that may cause them to burn out and quit.

Tom Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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