On Toxic Schools
20 Nov 2020
This is a sample chapter from my new book ‘Teacher Resilience: Managing stress and anxiety to thrive in the profession’.
8.15am. Zane’s door opened without warning. Thomas, the school’s deputy headteacher (a man who had been teaching for a grand total of five years), stood with a clipboard and one of the colour-coded spreadsheets that seemed to be an extension of his extremely expensive suit.
“Good morning, Mr Salidho. I’m here to talk to you about uploading lesson plans.”
Zane’s heart sank. Here it was: the weekly conversation about how his lesson plans lacked differentiation, detail and specific lesson objectives and, of course, how they weren’t uploaded on time.
“In our weekly leadership team meeting your name was discussed again. Upon reviewing your lesson plans, it has been decided that they are lacking in differentiation, detail and specific lesson objectives. I am sure you are also aware that the lesson plans for the week need to be uploaded by 8am on a Monday morning.
“I have taken the liberty of printing off some exemplar lesson plans from the system for you to reflect further on. I think it would be prudent for us to meet after school today to discuss how best you might implement some of the good practice. Please be at my office at 4.30.”
With that, Thomas spun around on his well-heeled shoes and vanished.
Picking up the huge pile of exemplar lesson plans, Zane saw that they were annotated to within an inch of their life, to explicitly outline what the lesson was doing effectively…
Toxic school environments very much exist in the UK. They are hidden from the public eye and from superficial inspection regimes, but the harsh reality is that things are happening in schools that destroy teaching careers. There are cultures of bullying, Orwellian degrees of scrutiny and obsessive fixations on external perceptions. Sometimes, as in any profession, it is the people leastsuited to leadership who make it to the top, and they rarely use their power to improve things for the people further down the hierarchy.
The impact of such toxic environments on individual teachers can be profound. Scores of enthusiastic and talented people are leaving the profession, burnt out and disillusioned.
I morphed into a version of Thomas, the well-heeled senior leader in this chapter’s Anxious Anecdote, early in my teaching career. I joined a large leadership team at the end of my second year of teaching, earning a ludicrously high salary at an academy in central London. When the headteacher said in the interview, “I expect blood,” I should have run a country mile. Instead, in youthful arrogance, I sacrificed my health and relationships and worked well over 80 hours a week: six days a week in school.
I look back and cringe: I fully assimilated myself into a toxic environment. As pressure was exerted on me, I tried to absorb it, but I know that I passed far too much pressure on to other members of staff, encouraging them to work unsustainably, too.
With my clipboard and an expensive black suit, I conducted conversations that left people in tears. I held intense weekly “workbook reviews”; I strolled in and out of lessons at whim; I expected more and more from the staff I managed. Everything they did was under scrutiny – we even held a weekly “premises check” on a Friday evening, to monitor and feed back on how presentable the classrooms were.
The truth was that the wellbeing of the people I managed was a lesser concern for me than the attainment of their students.
I spent two years feeling hugely uncomfortable and completely out of my depth. When I eventually had a breakdown, I knew that, in part, it was because I was being asked to act in a manner that was entirely against my disposition.
I handed in my notice in the January of my second year in the role and, despite six months of difficult experiences, I stayed until the end of the school year. I have no desire to recount those experiences here; suffice it to say that I am a different person as a result. They have left me with a real understanding of negative school environments and the impact they can have on mental health – from the point of view of the teacher and of the leader complicit in such toxicity.
It took me some time to channel those experiences into something positive. For a long time, I entirely lacked confidence and operated in a heightened state of anxiety and fear. The adage that difficulty builds our resilience is true, but the saying “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is too trite to throw around. It doesn’t acknowledge that it can take a very long time for bad experiences to breed strength.
What constitutes a toxic environment?
No school is perfect and, of course, to some extent a person’s experience of a school is subjective. Headteachers can exploit that subjectivity, making it harder to tackle toxic environments. When leaders are challenged, the response is usually along the lines of: what doesn’t work for one teacher might allow another to thrive. This is why it is important to identify the common characteristics of toxic schools, to ensure that teachers and leaders can recognise when their school environment is unhealthy.
The terms “toxic school culture” and “toxic schools” are predominantly used to describe schools with aspects that negatively affect the performance, mental health or working environment of staff. The core issue is the direct and lasting impact that these negative experiences at work can have on our lives as a whole.
These negatives can be hard to spot: they often become norms that are deeply assimilated into the culture of the school. They can become invisible. But staff morale will reveal their existence: the staff will be constantly stressed and have little time to enjoy the benefits – professional and personal – of working with others. Staff turnover is another significant indicator of a toxic environment: low turnover speaks of commitment to and appreciation of the school ethos; high turnover reveals deep levels of dissatisfaction across the whole organisation.
One of the most significant characteristics of a toxic school is a culture of fear. There is a lack of trust between teachers and leaders. Staff feel vulnerable and constantly on edge; they feel as if they are under surveillance and don’t have any space to do what they feel is right in the classroom. The voices of staff are not heard, or are heard only in a tokenistic way. The culture of fear is characterised by a lack of empathy and a lack of awareness of what staff might be experiencing.
Surviving in a toxic environment
In toxic schools, the more experienced staff members, who might be more inclined to voice their concerns, are often forced out, replaced by a small army of young teachers who are perceived by the school to be disposable and more compliant. Less experienced staff may not recognise that some of the practices that exist in the school are deeply dysfunctional. They will also be worried about passing their NQT year and of how it might look if they leave the school early. In teaching, a reference is vital and headteachers in toxic schools will seek to exploit this.
If you feel like you are working in a toxic school, it is so important that you are as open as you can be about your concerns. Find a member of staff whom you trust and share your thoughts – the chances are you will realise you are not alone in feeling that something is not right in your school. Make sure, however, that you take the time to build this relationship before revealing your feelings in depth.
Alongside this, try to find out about cultures in other schools: speak to the teachers you know in other environments and find out what their experience is like. This will help you to decide if it is the case that the school is the wrong fit for you.There are numerous accounts online of working in toxic schools. The fact that they are often anonymous highlights just how difficult it is for teachers to talk honestly about their experiences. The example below, from an article on the Teachwire website,59 encapsulates the mindset that begins to take over in a toxic environment: you work harder and harder and sacrifice everything else, in a blind attempt to keep up with unrealistic expectations.“I stopped sleeping and my insomnia heightened my sense of insecurity. Being signed off work by the doctor forced me to re-evaluate my life and I promised my wife I would look for work at another school. When I told the headteacher, she told me she could make sure I never worked again.”
To prevent this mindset, it is so important to keep perspective. Remember that what is being asked of you is unrealistic and unsustainable. Be strong enough to put your own needs first – and that includes implementing any of the strategies that we have explored in this book. Set boundaries about how much work you are willing to do and stick to them.
Even something as simple as not working through your lunch break is important, giving you space and allowing you to recharge your batteries.There are also ways in which you can take ownership of boosting your own self-worth. You might share resources on Twitter, start a club for kids that involves an activity you love, or try to foster more community spirit within your department.
Write everything down
I cannot stress this point enough: in a toxic environment, it is crucial to make notes of everything that goes on. Every difficult conversation and every challenging meeting. Make sure that only you can access these notes – don’t leave them lying around or on a school computer. Then, if you experience any issues regarding references or further employment, you will have a log of all that has happened in that context.
If your situation does become very challenging, you must engage union support. The unions exist for a reason: to put the needs of staff first and provide them with external support. Some schools do all they can to quash union representation, but it is our legal right to take advice from them. Make sure you know who your union representative is and be proactive in seeking them out for discussions.
It is immensely dispiriting when teachers decide to leave the profession after working in only one school. Schools are their own little universes – there are profound differences between them and the ways in which they function. A bad experience at one school does not reflect the profession as a whole; rather, it is a sign that you do not fit in that particular culture. Be brave, be bold, and take your time to find an environment that works better for you.
I don’t believe in regrets, but I do wish I hadn’t rushed to take the first job I applied for on my training year. I was moving from Newcastle to London and my wife had already secured employment, so I needed a teaching job. I had never been in a London school and had no idea how they functioned. The huge recruitment process the school was going through, and the sheer number of teachers there on interview day, should have been a warning, but I was just thankful for the opportunity.
No school is perfect and to suggest so would be naive. It is so important, however, to scrutinise carefully all aspects of the school. Every school is trying to project an image of success and to lure parents and teachers. Reading through a school’s website can be revealing to an extent: does it present a mission statement and purpose? What is the language like in relation to work-life balance? Consider what is missing: are there any staff testimonials? Is there a dedicated page concerning staff? And how many staff vacancies are there?
It is important to read inspection reports, but they need to be taken at face value. Plenty of schools that have a glossy “outstanding” banner hanging outside the building are deeply dysfunctional. What is the narrative around development? What comments are made about leaders?
The internet is, of course, full of ways to rate and review schools. Have a careful and considered look around, but always be mindful of the context of reviews. If it’s a Mumsnet thread, for example, it will come from a completely different angle than a conversation on Twitter. And remember: much like restaurant reviews, people aren’t necessarily going to go to the effort of leaving feedback if their experience was positive.
Try to find someone who works or has worked at the school you are applying to – they will be able to give you the inside track on the school. environment. Their perspective will be authentic, but remember that it will also be entirely subjective.
An interview is as much about a school deciding if you fit with their values as it is about you deciding whether the school fits with yours. But, in the rush to secure a job, this is often overlooked: the pragmatic need for security overtakes niggling doubts that might exist on interview day. I know that was the case for me.
The first step in finding an environment that suits you is considering your core values. What kind of culture do you want to work in? And what kind of culture do you want to avoid? Here are some other ways to help you find the right fit:
1. Be open-minded. Think about the version of the school that is being presented to you. Are you being shown the reality of what it would be like to work there day in, day out? Have you been able to look around the school and see lessons taking place? If a tour has not been arranged, I would ask for one – you need to see what the school looks like in full flow. But remember that these tours can be carefully orchestrated to show you only the bright spots of a school environment.
2. Ask questions. Preparing a list of questions before the interview will ensure that you get all the information you need. There is a balance to be found here: only ask appropriate questions and only ask the appropriate people. It might make you nervous to ask questions, but any good leader will be happy to provide more information and address any concerns.
3. Ask for time to think. In the intensity of an interview day, we sometimes feel pressured into making a decision. This in itself is not a good sign: schools should be respectful of the fact that you might need time to consider an offer. It can take courage and conviction to say no, but if you have reflected carefully and your gut feeling is negative, then the chances are that it is not the school for you.
Recovering from a toxic school
Sometimes we need to hit rock bottom in order to re-evaluate and start again. Trauma as a result of work-based experiences is far more common in education than we might think. It can be difficult to accept that you might be suffering as a result of trauma: I know I tried to tell myself that my experience wasn’t “that bad” and that others go through far worse. But, over time, I have come to accept that trauma as a result of school practices is a very real thing.
If this is something you have experienced, communication is key. It is essential that you remain open about how you are feeling with colleagues, friends and family. To recover from your experience, sometimes it is not as simple as merely moving to another environment – many of the emotional strains may linger and continue to cause difficulties.
Consider working with a therapist to unpick the experiences you have had. For me, this was really helpful and it also allowed me to see that some of the ways I was behaving and acting in my new school were adding to the stress and anxiety I was feeling. There will be triggers that take you back to previous challenges: if I am in a staff meeting now, for example, it still takes me some time to calm down – and that is more than five years later. The stigma surrounding medication for stress and anxiety is dissipating and it is so important that you make the decisions that are right for you in terms of supporting your mental health.
There is no time frame for recovering from workplace trauma and such feelings may linger for a long time. Remember, however, that the challenges you may have faced will give you a strength that you might not yet recognise. You will develop more compassion, more awareness of the fragility of life, and a deeper appreciation of the many schools that work brilliantly as collectives. Your experiences will also make you a better and more sensitive teacher. The more you have been through yourself, the more empathetic you will be to the needs of pupils, especially those who might be internalising their feelings.
Toxic school environments exist and it is vital that, as a profession, we recognise their characteristics – this will help us to limit their impact. If you are working in such an environment, make sure you prioritise your own health and wellbeing and maintain a healthy sense of perspective. Although no school is perfect, it is important to hold on to your professional values and leave an environment that is not suited to you.
Thank you for reading, if anything resonates in this chapter please do get in touch. ‘Teacher Resilience: Managing stress and anxiety to thrive in the classroom’ is out now.