Toxic Schools: ⚠️ The Signs And Symptoms

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Andrew Lochery

Andrew has been involved in education since qualifying as a science teacher in 2005. He has taught science, specialising in chemistry and physics, to students across the KS2 to KS5 range. In 2008 he set up Green APLEducation Ltd ( developing useful science teaching resources....
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What if it’s them and not you?

In schools, there are always going to be good days and bad days. Many of the staff are under constant pressure and the problems are coming from different angles.

However, maybe what used to be the occasional bad day is becoming more of the norm? What if the real source of the problem the school itself?

The challenges

Some schools are notoriously difficult and unpredictable places to work. Many challenges come with educating our young people to become the leaders of tomorrow. Contrary to what some people believe, schools somewhat reflect what is happening in wider society.

There are many problems, in many schools, but how are the problems dealt with? How do the staff respond to the problems? How do the senior managers in the school treat the staff and students?

Many communities across the country are affected by drugs, poverty, violence, knife crime, guns and anti-social behaviour. There are many schools that, even in challenging circumstances, are making a massive difference in the community they serve. However, they can’t do it alone.

In some schools, it is the individual teachers making a difference, despite the system and not because of the system. Then there are toxic schools. You only need to listen to the accounts of so many teachers on social media to know they exist; frighteningly, there are many more than you probably think.

Toxic Schools

People that don’t work in schools may have distorted ideas of what they are like and how they operate. Parents might overly rely on school rankings and Ofsted reports when deciding whether a school is somewhere they would like to send their child or not.

What if the school is a ‘toxic school‘?

The term ‘toxic school’ may mean different things to different people (How, 2021). What it’s like to work in one, and subsequently leave, toxic school environments.

As a member of staff, reflecting on what is actually happening in school may help to identify when a school has become toxic. In addition, being aware of the signs and symptoms of a toxic school may help you avoid any unpleasant experiences in the future.

Identifying the signs …

A member of staff in a toxic school will probably experience many of the following on a regular basis:

  1. No time to eat
  2. No empathy
  3. Backstabbing and bullying
  4. Weekend working and weekend worrying (TES, 2021)

Furthermore, @TeacherToolkit has a comprehensive resource to help identify a toxic school. It contains a walkthrough that will provide teachers with some reassurance and tools to help them identify or avoid a toxic school culture.

Identifying A Toxic School

Identifying the symptoms …

Existing members of staff may not realise the school is toxic. Some of the symptoms to look out for include:

  1. High staff turnover
  2. High-stress levels
  3. Increased mental health problems

When you are in the ‘system’ and working in a toxic school, it can be difficult to see the (proverbial) ‘wood from the trees’. However, those members of staff who have unfortunately experienced a toxic school would be more likely to identify one a mile off.

Rethink your position

The good news is you don’t have to accept a toxic school.

If your job is making you unhappy, then change it. Staff members voting with their feet and going elsewhere can represent the best outcome for all parties. Staying somewhere that is getting you down will affect your mental health.

Rather than accepting the status quo, there are plenty of non-toxic schools and workplaces to try.

For a school, a high staff turnover should be ringing an alarm bell. Leaders also need to play their part in finding out what is happening and should be asking difficult questions. Frequent and anonymous staff surveys really help!

Schools are a community of people, gathered together to improve the lives of all, no matter what their age. We need to remember to put both the students and the staff at the centre of our schools.

There is no place for toxic schools in our society, and where they do exist, it is about time they are rooted out of the system.

For further help and support, refer to Toxic Schools (Woodley and McGill, 2019).

2 thoughts on “Toxic Schools: ⚠️ The Signs And Symptoms

  1. Toxic schools not only exist in the UK but overseas, Be very wary of so-called ‘international schools.” I had an appalling experience at XXXX in Vietnam, caught long-term Covid, was unpaid for being sick, cheated on my salary and totally demoralised by badly behaved, entitled students and toxic teachers who were just there for the money and not even qualified in many cases. I fled after six weeks and it really dented my confidence. Do not try and stick it out and imagine matters will improve in a toxic school. They won’t especially with corrupt management and HR and amoral practices.

  2. It starts with top. As Trish said, it happens overseas as well.

    I stuck out in a toxic environment and I didn’t enjoy going to work everyday. One of the problem was trying to find another school halfway through a term, it is damaging on a CV. Though for mental wellbeing, it is better just to walk away.

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