Listen to Episode 13 of the Student-Centered World Podcast above, “What Do You Do With a Toxic School?”
I was on Facebook this morning and was reading the plight of a teacher who had a total administrative, unannounced observation the morning after returning from winter break. This is the stuff of school culture nightmares.
That first day back from any break (let alone the morning) is all about recreating a routine, no matter the grade level. What were these administrators thinking?
How often do you find yourself asking that exact question?
Hopefully, you’re in the position where you just read these nightmare scenarios on the internet but haven’t actually lived through them.
Or perhaps you’re like the rest of us.
Working in a toxic school culture sucks the life (and love) out of teaching faster than anything. Maybe you have a completely unsupportive administrative team, or perhaps opinionated parents have more pull than you do. There are one hundred different ways that you may find yourself working in a toxic school culture.
None of them are fun.
Signs of a toxic school culture
If you’re working in a toxic school culture, I don’t have to explain to you what that looks like. According to the ASDC (2019), there are 10 signs to look for:
- No clear sense of purpose.
- Hostile relations among staff, students, and parents.
- Emphasis on rules over people or mission.
- An absence of honest dialogue.
- More self-preservation than collaboration.
- Active back channels over formal lines of communication.
- Punishment instead of recognition, and rewards and behavior motivated by the avoidance of punishment.
- A palpable lack of safety.
- A small group who controls the conversation.
- An absence of risk-taking
The last school district I worked in was so focused on implementing procedures properly, the kids were merely an afterthought…
I could have written this list myself based on the day-to-day interactions within the district.
The final straw (after many red flags) for me was when I went to my administrator to tell him that a student had confided in me that he cut school and when he did, he found himself accidentally in a very compromising situation. My administrator’s reaction?
“Did you write him up for cutting?”
Literally, the LEAST important aspect of this entire conversation was the only one that sparked any interest.
I knew something had to give.
How to Counter a Toxic School Culture
I was discussing my plight with an educational colleague whom I had grown to respect (and had no connection to my school district). After listening to my concerns, he looked me in the eye and said one simple statement.
“You’re not a tree.”
That may have been one of the most profound things I had heard about my career up to that point.
We often get so stuck in this cycle of despair and the feeling that we can’t do a darn thing about it. In actuality, there is a lot we can do about it because let’s be serious:
It’s not as easy as it is in other professions to find another job. Where I come from, you need to give 60 days’ notice to vacate a position or risk losing your teaching license. Schools are often eliminating positions instead of creating them and, of course, often when you have too much experience, you’re “too expensive” and won’t even be considered for an interview.
Puts you in a tough spot, doesn’t it?
Overall, you have three possible options if you are finding yourself in a toxic school culture and want to stay in education.
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1. Hope for Change
This is where most people get stuck. They feel like they are trapped in a situation in which they have no control over and can’t do anything about it. Maybe they’re too close to retirement or they can’t fathom having to commute to a new school. Regardless, they just go through the motions.
This is fine as long as you can sustain it.
Perhaps the issues at your school are truly something that you can close your door to, so to speak, and still make it through the day.
Your best bet is to try to get to the root of what you see as the issue. Is it one particular person who may be close to retiring? Culture in the school itself that can be tweaked in your own classroom? If you can keep under the radar OR do something to spark change, then this may be a good option for you.
2. Change your path
There are multiple avenues in the educational system that aren’t necessarily being completely in the classroom. Do some soul searching and decide if one of them may be right for you.
Personally, this is the path I took. I began to love presenting workshops on Student-Centered Learning and so many of my colleagues were pushing me towards that as a new path. I was always frustrated that it took me so long to master student-centered learning because there was nothing out there that explained how to actually do it effectively…so I decided to be that person.
Starting my own business isn’t necessarily the traditional way to go about this change, but I knew the universe was pushing me towards being a consultant and this seemed like the most logical next step.
It wasn’t easy leaving the classroom, or even my school, because of my students. Let me tell you something though….at the end of the school year when I shared with them what I was planning to do, I couldn’t have had a bigger group of cheerleaders. There were lots of tears (on both sides) on the last day of school, but walking out the door and knowing that I had the full, uncontested support of the young adults whom I had the privilege of teaching…because they also believed in the methodology I was going to teach to other educators…was enough motivation for me to know I was making the right leap.
3. Make like a tree…
You may love the classroom so much but just can’t take it where you are.
There’s no shame in that.
The last true option is to find a teaching position in another school. This looks different for different people. It may be a transfer within your district or into a completely different one. It may be a switch from private to public or rural to suburban.
It is up to you to decide what you want your future landscape to look like and then go for it.
The best thing you can do if you’re leaning this route is to get on social media with a teacher account. Twitter is huge with the “high up” educational folk and Instagram is like the teacher playground. If you get yourself out there, it gives potential future employers an opportunity to see what you’ve got. Post activities in your classroom, educational articles you’ve found, and other school things that interest you.
Just keep it positive.
Check out the book Toxic Schools: How to Avoid Them & How to Leave Them (ad) for some guidance with this journey.
No matter what you decide to do, you need to make sure it’s best for you. This is YOUR life. Find joy in it.
The Last Piece to Consider
At the end of the day, it is up to you to decide if your toxic school culture is a moment you can bear to get through or if it’s just become too much. You 1000% need to put yourself first. If your mental and/or physical health are suffering because of your toxic school culture, you need to take a serious look inside to decide if it’s worth it.
Almost every single person I know has left education was because of what it did to their mental and/or physical health. The common denominator in all of them? They had a toxic school culture and no avenue to help them navigate it. It turned into what had the effects of an abusive situation in their lives and it was just too much.
Every single story is unique and special and important and worth telling but they all end the same way: A toxic school culture out of their control was detrimental to his/her mental and/or physical health and had to leave in order to survive.
Watching colleagues go through this is another main reason I started Student-Centered World: to be another voice to help teachers navigate this terrain.
It is so so so so important and cleansing and therapeutic and absolutely necessary to do what you can to survive, but there comes a point where the only thing to do is leave. This time in your life should be treated as an active experience to learn from, not a time to be miserable.
You need to do what you can to protect yourself because your mental and/or physical health are your number one priority right now. If that means leaving, then you leave. There will always be another job out there for you with less toxicity in it if that’s what you want.
It’s going to be a bit of a logistical nightmare the first time you do it, but trust me if I am telling you this: It is so worth it.
The danger of toxic school culture is that it’s not always obvious and it’s certainly not something you can escape during the day. Do what you have to do to get your health back on track and stay strong! You can overcome anything with the right support behind you; it’s up to you to decide what path to take and what support to get.