“You know you’re in a toxic environment when… People use the word ‘fairness,’ when in reality, managing the appearance of fairness becomes the job.”Richie Norton
Professional unity in unprecedented times.
This year has thrown many obstacles at us. Amidst a global pandemic, many of us are finding this ‘new normal’ incredibly challenging. Unquestioned routines, unchallenged traditions and the uncontested rigidity of the British education system is under increased scrutiny. As we approach the final two weeks of the first academic term this year, one aspect of education that remains prevalent is toxic cultures, bullying, unattainable workloads, mental health breakdowns and teachers leaving the profession.
The teaching profession comes with its various demands, pressures, expectations and challenges. Since schools closed in their full capacity back in March, our profession has suffered wave after wave of condemnation and disapproval from everyone from the Kirstie Allsopp to Andrew Adonis. At a time where we should be rolling out the red carpet for our teachers, the disconnect between society and its educators has grown exponentially. The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson continues to deliberately misunderstand the demands places on teachers and with threats of Ofsted visits lurking in the background, who would be a teacher right now? The best profession in the world is undoubtedly teaching but do we have the best systems to support our teachers? This varies considerably from school to school and leadership to leadership. We should be supporting rather than competing with one another and our schools should be safe havens and not basking in toxicity.
What is a toxic working environment?
Before I even heard of ‘toxic schools’, I was the ever-optimist. Schools were placed of social mobility, a chance for every child to get on and progress, run professionally, held together by good moral practices & everyone sang from the same hymn sheet. Stupendous.
A toxic working environment by definition is: as any job where the work, the atmosphere, the people, or any combination of those things cause serious disruptions in the rest of your life.
I want to make this clear, any conversation about toxic schools is not an attack on school leaders. It is unfair, unjust and wrong to attack fellow professionals but we must focus our dialogue on practices and cultures. Since we returned to school, I have seen some incredible practice and ideas. The positivity and sheer hard work our teachers put in during such difficult times is heart-warming. However, in order for us to enjoy the true beauty of teaching and its rewards, we must also consider all the elements that make our lives challenging. Through personal experience, research and conversations, I have the following non-exhaustive list of traits toxic schools adhere to. Again, this is a working list and in constant reflection but also an effort to sustain dialogue.
•No time for lunch,
•Backstabbing, untrustworthy, gossipy & cliquey Staff,
•High Staff turnover,
•High Staff absences/sickness,
•Lack of/no communication,
•CCing email culture,
•A threat-ridden culture,
•A lack of empathy
•A predatory begrudging culture,
•Violation of privacy,
•Fear of speaking up & the rising sense of voicelessness,
•The exploitation of goodwill,
•Attendance registers taken at briefings,
•Blind CCing into emails,
•Staff carpark full at 6pm,
•Behaviour policies that undermine teachers,
•Continuous & sustained monitoring.
NOTE: some schools will have several of these characteristics, others are more nuanced. Either way, once you know that where you are working is causing grave anxiety, it is time to take action.
It is clear that at the heart of toxic school cultures is a lack of professional trust. When we have anonymous features in Tes, or desperate teachers seeking advice on social media, it is clear we have a national emergency. With over 39,000 teachers leaving the profession in 2019, our retention and recruitment crisis will not disappear if we stop talking about it.
How can we support colleagues?
Where do teachers who are struggling go? I have three of ways we can support colleagues who are finding work more difficult.
Nobody wants to keep hearing sob stories but no one wants them to be their daily realities either. If only every school was supportive and we had a sense of professional unity, such stories wouldn’t exist. Many teachers who are struggling, being bullied, even grieving or overwhelmed, they simply need a safe space to discuss and relay their concerns. Our work colleagues can become friends but at a time of competitive rhetoric, circumstantial and transactional relationships are often the norm. At the very core, we must give fellow professionals time and space to unload and thus gain support. Listening to others is not about providing them with the answers but rather helping them find a solution by initially articulating their concerns. There has to be a greater sense of normality around our rights as teachers and the challenges that make our lives difficult.
As teachers, we place great emphasis on our jobs, we want to give it our all. However, this does not mean we are immune to the stresses and strains of every other profession. Many teachers who are struggling, they need to be signposted to some form of support. How many times have we been unable to advise colleagues, either out of a lack of knowledge or perhaps fear? At times we quite simply don’t know how to support others and that is fine! We can still signpost possible avenues of support rather than be another wall of silence for our colleagues and fellow professionals. I would personally signpost fellow teachers to both the NEU and NASUWT, the Education Support and the Facebook group Life After Teaching. All of these are a real source of information, advice and support. I will leave links below.
Many teachers need to know that it is not just them and their struggles need to be acknowledged. Some of them are seeing the toxic positivity which can downplay their own struggles. Downplaying the battles of others, it reductionist, nebulous and a really Rose-tinted view of the painful realities others have faced. Comments like ‘my school is nothing like this’ or ‘get a new job’ are so nebulous. This also trivialises the precarious predicaments of teachers who are struggling and individualises the concerns as a personal dysfunction rather than a wider symptom of poor practices. Acknowledging and addressing these issues, highlighting concerns and allowing teachers who are not having a great time of it, some time and space is how we can proceed. The number of times people who, often out of last resort are crying for help, are labelled as ‘negative’ is just wrong. Their negative experiences simply mean they want you to prosper and blossom and not suffer the way they may have. We need to acknowledge what is wrong and thus rectify it to right those wrongs. Help provide solutions rather than add to grievances.
Right now, during these difficult times we need professional courtesy and unity. Listening to one another, signposting and acknowledging are of paramount importance as many of struggle with this ‘new normal’. Yes, teaching is the best job in the world but also the demands and challenges we face are like no other. If anything, Covid should have taught us to reconnect with one another. Downplaying the battles of others does not brighten our own.
I can assure you that we all know a colleague who has,
∙been signed off,
∙struggled with their classes,
∙felt overwhelmed by their workload,
Even amidst your own battles, mindful of your colleagues. A rose-tinted view really doesn’t help anyone.
Finally, a note on the book. Toxic School – Our Antidote is complete. I am just waiting on a handful of reviews, a CPD session and a few loose ends to tie up but I can assure you, it is close.
Thank you for reading,
NASUWT Helpline: 03330 145550
NEU Helpline: 0345 811 8111
Education Support Helpline: 08000 562561
Life After Teaching – https://m.facebook.com/groups/3181062418620259?view=permalink&id=3532321000161064