Five signs you’re working in a toxic school

Five signs you’re working in a toxic school

Sometimes we find ourself in the wrong school for us. Perhaps our values don’t align or we don’t share the same philosophy of teaching and learning and leadership. And we just don’t enjoy it so we move on.

Occasionally, we find ourselves truly lost because the environment we’re working in is so critical, so unreasonable and so demoralising, we end up in a negative thinking loop, losing our confidence and feeling trapped. Like any abusive relationship, it’s crept up on us. At the beginning they couldn’t praise us enough, now we find ourselves justifying our every action and telling ourselves how we ‘used to be .…’ Like any victim of abuse, it doesn’t mean we’re weak: strong people can find themselves caught up in hopeless thinking, feeling isolated and unable to see a way out.

I have twice ended up working in toxic environments and therefore fully understand the detrimental impact working with an unsupportive and critical line manager can have on your wellbeing and your career. One reflection, I identified these patterns and perhaps they’ll resonate with you.

1. You’ve lost confidence

You’re used to lots of autonomy and responsibility and now you’re being micro-managed. You’re used to being praised, the person they turn to for advice, your projects and ideas being held up as best practise and now everything you do is questioned.

You used to have no problem speaking up for yourself yet now you stay quiet in meetings, you don’t offer your ideas willingly and you dread being asked your opinion. You know if you share your strategy, what you’ve done or how your students and team are doing as they’ll malign it any way and re-word it and share it as their own idea.

2. You’ve lost self-belief

You used to be a confident and often outstanding teacher who created and shared amazing resources and plans and got great results. Now you’re doubting your ability to teach, let alone lead a team. You overthink every little thing so every task takes longer and you’re becoming indecisive.

You have no confidence to apply for another job of the same level let alone the promotion that would have been your next logical step and you are even considering a lesser role or leaving the profession altogether (as it’s certainly not feeling like a profession any more). Perhaps you spend your time looking at every vacancy, feeling unfocussed and directionless and you end up procrastinating and applying for nothing.

3. You’re permanently stressed

You’re so afraid of criticism, that you inadvertently do something wrong, you end up making errors. You work so late and such long hours, you’re don’t get enough rest so you’re tired and exhausted, exacerbated by emotional exhaustion and inability to sleep due to a racing mind when you do get to bed, and this means you’re working slower and your productivity as decreased.

Perhaps you’ve developed IBS or indigestion, your skin has become itchy, you have regular or incessant headaches, and you often feel sick at the thought of going to school. Perhaps you often don’t feel like eating  or the complete opposite – you comfort eat or you’re starting to drink more often in the evening to numb your distress. Perhaps you’ve even had a panic attack.

4. You cry lots

You cry on the way to school, on the way home from school and even in school. You wouldn’t consider yourself a ‘crier’, you’re a strong woman, yet you find yourself unable to control your tears. And you don’t want to cry because it feels weak and as leaders we’re not supposed to show weakness, we’re meant to be role models.

Perhaps they’re tears of anger or frustration as no-one is listening, you can’t win and you are no longer able to express yourself clearly. Or perhaps they’re tears of overwhelm as you can never get on top of the job and never feel like you’ve done a good job, and you always have a sense of impending doom, that fear of being caught out not having done something.

Perhaps you cry because your relationships are breaking down around you and you don’t know how to stop it. Or perhaps you have now numbed your feelings, losing your sense of humour, fun and kindness in the process, but you only want to protect those you love from your hurt.

5. You’ve started to gaslight yourself

You used to be pretty balanced. You had an inner critic but she was under control and you could challenge her. Now you keep telling yourself you’re ‘too sensitive’, ‘you need to manage stress better’, you blame yourself every time something somewhere in your area is not ‘up to standard’ or you blame yourself for student behaviour or for another teacher’s poor attitude.

You always attack yourself, accuse yourself, tell yourself that it must have been something you did or didn’t do or say. Or perhaps you’re angry at yourself and feeling guilty because you find yourself blaming and not trusting those in your team and then telling yourself you’re no longer a ‘good enough’ manager because your team isn’t perfect.

It may be they’ve started competency proceedings, put you on an action plan, you may have involved your union and there is no way forward other than a settlement agreement.

Just know you are good enough, that you are doing your best with the resources you have available to you right now, and that their behaviour is about them, not you. 

If you look around you, you’ll probably notice you’re not alone. Perhaps others are keeping their heads down, afraid to speak out. Perhaps your line manager micro manages you because they have no autonomy either. Perhaps the leadership are being pilloried for not meeting some impossible one-size-fits-all goal set by the trust or perhaps their imposter syndrome has made them intolerant of differences or mistakes. Of course, that means they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

So what is the solution?

Find comfort in knowing that these are patterns of toxic environments and you cannot change them. The only solution is to manage your wellbeing and your thinking so that you can leave.

You can begin to manage the impact through

  • connecting with someone you can trust outside of the organisation,
  • practising journalling to reflect on wider patterns and lessen the personal impact,
  • adopting affirmations to keep your thinking optimistic,
  • creating a scrapbook of good news and success stories,
  • developing a self-care plan

And ultimately you will need to create an escape plan.

When you feel like you’ve changed, when you’re feeling like you’re not coping and you’re despairing about your teaching career, then it’s time for some self-reflection so that you can start to make changes that will support you to find your old self, reignite your passion and move forward.


Why not join my webinar to help you identify those shifts you can make to help you change your thinking and create that escape plan. I will share the tools that helped me manage my wellbeing until I escaped and techniques that helped me get my confidence back.

Let me help you escape the trap of toxic.

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