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Is your stress due to a toxic school?

When thinking about returning to school creates a feeling of dread that’s deeper than Monday morning blues, when the thought of walking back through the gates converts into feeling ill or depressed, or if all confidence in your ability to do the job has been sapped out of you, it could be a case of chronic stress, or even burn out. And it could be the sign of a toxic school rather than your inability to cope with the job. 

What are signs that a school is toxic?

One sign that a workplace is toxic is that no-one smiles, staff have their heads down and energy levels are constantly low.

Another is that there’s lots of absenteeism or, worse, a culture of presenteeism, where staff turn up and try to teach when they are ill as they are afraid to phone in sick.

If your headteacher or principal is considered to be a bully, then chances are you’re in a toxic culture. Perhaps they’re afraid of missing their performance management targets and have resorted to threatening, judging or blaming, looking for teachers making mistakes and creating a blame culture. They are caught in a scarcity mindset and project this onto their staff demanding more and more. Yet the irony is, a fear response like this serves to lessen work quality, reduce productivity, impair relationships, compromise confidence and undermine staff mental and physical wellbeing.

In a toxic school, there is little room for innovation or thinking outside the box. Policies are top down, it’s a command and control management, and everyone is expected to micro-manage those below them. There is little trust or appreciation and success is measured by meeting criteria and school goals rather than what staff may consider meaningful. Staff briefings and meetings are about what you haven’t done – the duties you haven’t turned up for, the lessons that weren’t good enough, the lack of student progress. They are full of criticism and lacking in praise. Staff are afraid of ‘getting into trouble’ for missing data deadlines, not having marked their books ‘correctly’ or often enough, not having followed the behaviour policy scrupulously, not delivering a lesson in the right way and not being outstanding.

In a toxic school, teachers don’t speak out and they try to be invisible; they stop questioning yet another initiative being introduced and instead take their complaints home which causes angst there or complain to other staff which creates gossip and a passive aggressive culture. Even among SLT there is a lack of willingness to speak out for fear they will be picked on. Team members may even take credit for the ideas of others as they are desperate for recognition and every one feels the need to mind their back. Staff get trapped in victim thinking.

How can you manage and escape toxicity?

We cannot change a culture on our own, even if we are the leader, and as a teacher we don’t have the ability to take on the headteacher if it is them creating that culture. However we can support our line manager and team to challenge unacceptable behaviours and requests. Importantly, if we identify that our stress is coming from the toxic culture we are working in, we have to find ways to manage ourselves in the situation while we challenge or while we create an exit strategy (unless you are in a position to leave without a job).

  1. Once you have identified the source of your stress, decide on a solution – you have a choice whether to stay at the school or leave, once you decide, you can take action. 
  2. Be clear on your values – in the first place you will probably see that the problem in your school is that your values are being compromised; this clarity will also help you find the right school next time. 
  3. Each individuals’s behaviour is about them. Don’t get pulled into allowing a toxic person’s behaviour to be about you. 
  4. Beware negative thinking patterns that sabotage your efforts, for example catastrophising. Consider meditation to observe your thoughts rather than own them. Create an affirmation that will help you think optimistically and use language that promotes optimism.
  5. Work on strategies to keep your confidence, for example keep anything telling you you’re doing a good job, keep in contact with someone from a previous school and learn to reflect objectively on your achievements – what would your previous boss have said? 
  6. Set an intention for each day – focus on how you want to feel – eg love, compassion, courage and notice how this changes how you experience your day.
  7. Find someone to talk to outside the school where your confidentiality has to be respected and you cannot be accused of being disloyal; use this person as a resource to support you to manage the experience rather than internalise it and to build your confidence to apply for your next job. 
  8. Create a self-care plan to manage the stress of working in a blame culture – sleep, exercise, healthy eating, social life, hobbies. Look out for unhelpful habits forming such as a glass of wine each evening to unwind. Create a positive playlist for your journeys to and from work to lift your mood and remind yourself of how good you are at what you do. Remind yourself how wonderful home is before you cross the threshold so that you do not take negativity home with you and shower to wash off the day. 
  9. Keep your classroom and office as organised and joyful as possible with an anchor there that makes you smile – eg a meaningful photograph or piece of artwork.
  10. Create a list of what you are learning from this experience – try to take an observer role because you want to ensure you can spot it again and if you are choosing a hierarchical leadership role you will want to make sure you don’t re-create the environment by default or allow it to fester if you’re taking over. 
  11. Keep clear lists of what you have done and what needs to be done – mostly to celebrate your achievements to focus on the positives, and for your performance management and accountability meeting if you need it. 
  12. Get on as many courses as you can and volunteer – one to get out of school and two to develop your skills to help you move on. Add your skills and experiences to your CV as you go ready to apply for any new opportunity that arises.
  13. Set yourself a clear career goal with an action plan- and use it to plan your exit strategy. You don’t have to stay just because you got the job, or because it’s not fair on the students or other staff. The longer you stay, the more impact it will have on your motivation and the harder it is to show your passion at an interview as you start to come across as desperate or you start to show lack of self-belief.
  14. This one feels a little negative, but if you think you could complain or someone else could complain, create a file of all your emails, phone calls, and actions taken. It is time consuming and focussing on the problem rather than your solution but will be valuable if needed. 

Toxicity comes from fear and keeps us coming from a place of fear, which inhibits creative thought, productivity, and possibility. Keep focussing on abundance and joy.

I found myself working in a toxic school, but was not aware that was the problem at the time. I believe that understanding my context for my stress better at the time would have helped me better manage my stress and confidence.

If you have found yourself in this situation and would like support to get your confidence back so you can get your career back on track, message me or email me at carotyr@me.com and let’s talk.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318196603_Toxic_Workplace_Environment_In_Search_for_the_Toxic_Behaviours_in_Organizations_with_a_Research_in_Healthcare_Sector

https://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/ijls/new/vol7iss1/IJLS_Vol7Iss1_Winter2011.pdf#page=39

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