Identifying A Toxic School 

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Toxic Schools

Lynn How

Lynn has been teaching for 19 years during which time she has been an Assistant Head and a Lead Mentor at a Teacher Training institution. Currently, she is working part time as a SENCO. She loves to write, including research, children's poetry and she has...
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How can you tell if your school has gone beyond irritating and become truly toxic?

Most people experience day to day workplace ‘gripes’, but when does this turn into toxicity and does it make a difference if one person is finding a school toxic because of their individual circumstances?

In professional terms, I’ve been about a bit. My school tally is six. My length of service ranges from nine years to 8 months with nine headteachers who each brought their idiosyncrasies to the school. I left most of my schools due to promotion or relocation, but I left two because ‘the roles didn’t suit my skillset’ – you can read between the lines.

Although there are often other variables at play (such as job security and salary), I have found myself biting the bullet and having to take my own advice!

How do we avoid toxic schools?

Sometimes we can’t. They are either a result of a new leadership appointment, academy takeover, or a result of a school being sold when you arrive for a prospective job. I’ve enlisted the help of some anonymous teachers who have also had negative experiences. This is what they said:

  1. For months, I didn’t get a single positive or encouraging comment regarding my teaching, classroom or pupil engagement.’ If this is you, you are probably at this point rather paranoid about your ability to teach a class well…
  2. Another teacher said, ‘Negativity breeds negativity in a toxic school; you have to work hard to stay positive!’
  3. 24/7 availability: Endless emails, scrutinies and learning walks. You spend your evenings, weekends and holidays thinking about work. Furthermore, no one in SLT is encouraging you to work less.
  4. Your workplace has little time for humour or fun. Is it too regimented and dry?
  5. If staff are resorting to impressions of disliked members or if you spend time crying in your cupboard, then it is highly likely you are enveloped in a toxic environment.
  6. Being told you’re not good enough to progress.
  7. Bullying: A public dressing down in a staff meeting, passive-aggressive emails and the feeling you have when you need to ‘watch your back’ and not being treated like a person. If your leadership is not compassionate and they are more interested in when you are returning to work rather than how you are, then it’s time for a change!
  8. If your school is making questionable moral decisions, it may be time to consider leaving.
  9. The toll on your mental health – Educational Support charity cited an article on social media highlighting one person’s preference of crashing their car rather than going to work. If this is you, please consider your options!
  10. Sometimes the toxicity is gradual, ‘My whole outlook on life has become more positive since moving schools – my life was good before leaving the toxic environment but it had pervaded my very core. It had such a detrimental effect on every aspect of my being. I just couldn’t see it. My husband has told me it’s good to hear me laugh again. Sadly, I wasn’t aware I’d stopped.’

Regularly reflect and compare work places with friends to see if yours is displaying high toxicity levels.

If you would like to understand more, Toxic Schools is further explored by Dr Helen Woodley who wrote one of the most recent published books on this topic.

There is light at the end of the tunnel…

Despite all this negativity, there is light at the end of the tunnel and I would implore you not to give up on a career you once loved because of one experience. When ending your relationship with your toxic workplace, just like ending a toxic marriage, the line ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ does not work. It is not you. It is totally them. I have some happy endings to illustrate the point:

‘I am relieved to have been given the gift of reasonable self-esteem. Had I not had it, I would have broken and given up on a career that I loved. I have had nothing but positive feedback since starting my new job. Thank goodness I took the plunge and resigned!’

‘For the first time in years, I don’t feel sick the evening before returning to work. I have also noticed a huge difference in the confidence of my teaching ability. I knew I was a good teacher but totally doubted myself and lost all my confidence. I had decided that if my new school didn’t relight my teaching fire then it was time for a new career but I didn’t need to worry.  I am trusted as a professional to get on with my job. I make decisions about the learning journey of my class. I am able to adapt and change my plans. Because, unlike before, I am able to plan my own lessons, their content and how they are delivered. I am empowered to do my job well.’

Finally, assuming you don’t need a reasonable reference anymore from your ex workplace, remember to tell it like it is in your exit interview. If you can’t do this, wait until you really don’t need their reference and write to the governing body or board of trustees – if nothing else it will help if you need closure.

My parting piece of advice for everyone is that you don’t know what’s around the corner. Try and have enough money put away so if you have to resign spectacularly, you don’t need to panic.

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12 thoughts on “Identifying A Toxic School 

  1. Many symptoms you list above, I have experienced in recent school environment – and boy oh boy, you have nailed it down. I just did not know toxicity at the time – you tend to think it is just one individual, but if that individual has managerial responsibilities, it filters down below – and soon adapted as the standard.

    I have to compare this to how Germany, responsible for so many influencial philosophers to western ideologies, became swept with Natzism and we now know its end results.

  2. I have worked in a toxic environment in FE… thankfully had some money saved for my spectacular resignation but not before I crashed & burned. It took me 18 months to recover my health and a further 7 years to recover my senior position… but it was so worth it… I would t be here if I hadn’t left. Can’t shake the past, but can absolutely learn from it.

    1. I also had to go down to go up again and I learnt a lot in that process and worked at a wonderful school which really got my confidence back. I’m also working back up to where I was. I realised how deeply I was affected when I went back to see a friend a few years later and couldn’t even walk up the driveway! That took me by surprise. I’m glad you are in a better place as well.

      1. Do you mind me asking what you cited as your ‘reason for leaving’ on applications? I recently decided to leave my senior position due to issues mentioned above. I’m concerned how this looks to potential employers.

      2. Hi JClaire – I have written on applications that I have stepped down to spend more time with my family or to improve work life balance. However, I was very transparent with one school I went to as the head had heard of my school and asked what it was like to work there at which point I told him my experience. That school was really amazing for me to get my teaching confidence back.

  3. Hi James thanks for your comments – this culture has appeared to evolve over time in a minority of schools and although at the heart of it there are some individuals who are just not nice with others needing to tow the party line, I would consider that the pressures of OFSTED an d standards have also fueled the issue. At least unlike the Nazi regime, we as individuals have a choice to opt out of the circumstances without fear of our lives (although I also know that many are in fear of a lack of reasonable reference!). I hope your current situation is less toxic.

  4. Hi JClaire – I have written on applications that I have stepped down to spend more time with my family or to improve work life balance. However, I was very transparent with one school I went to as the head had heard of my school and asked what it was like to work there at which point I told him my experience. That school was really amazing for me to get my teaching confidence back.

  5. How can one deal with toxicity when you’re a qts trainee and it’s the head of a very small school who’s the problem? My life is totally miserable and I live under the threat of failing .

      1. Agreed – this is a horrible situation to be in. Unless you can find another school who would be willing to take you on for the remainder if your training. This would have be done through word of mouth I expect. Hopefully it won’t be long before your situation is a distant memory.

    1. I experienced something similar, I had a toxic HOD in my nqt year, keep your head down and tick all the boxes this year, but be applying for a new job and get out as soon as you can. My second school was such a contrast and I’ve worked in some lovely schools since too, I hope you find somewhere much happier to work.

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