Psychology Today describes a toxic work environment as “any job where the work, the atmosphere, the people, or any combination of those things makes you so dismayed it causes severe disruptions in every other aspect of your life.” A toxic school culture can have severe consequences on your mental and physical health, as well as your overall quality of life. “I resigned from my teaching job the day after I was put on medication for high blood pressure. I was having chest pains, insomnia, and a list of health issues from that job. My health issues were resolved soon after I left,” a former teacher shared with Bored Teachers. Unfortunately, many schools are toxic environments for teachers. Here are some symptoms of toxic school cultures.
1. Toxic leadership
The administration sets the tone for the health of the work environment. If they have toxic qualities, it’s going to drip down to the staff and even the students.
2. Double standards
“I got in trouble for taking my class outside to play kickball in the field instead of doing math once. Meanwhile, there are a couple of other teachers who take their classes out at least once a week without consequence,” a 5th-grade teacher observed. Different rules for different teachers is a sure sign of a toxic environment.
3. Lack of diversity
Diversity brings varying experiences, expertise, and viewpoints to the table. Plus, representation matters. It’s important for kids to have role models that look like them. Lack of diversity is a warning sign.
4. Inconsistent expectations and unclear communication
There should be an employee handbook and expectations should be clearly communicated.
5. Intimidation & Punishment
Some teachers work in an environment in which they are afraid to speak up about concerns for fear of retaliation from the administration – or even from fellow teachers.
6. Looking down on paras
If the administration and other teachers look down on paras, assistants, janitors, cafeteria workers, etc. that’s a huge red flag that you aren’t working in a healthy environment that values all members of the school community.
Students aren’t the only ones who form cliques. Sometimes adults do, too, and those on the outside can be left feeling powerless and inadequate.
8. Unsafe behavior
Just as we want students to feel safe at school, teachers should also feel safe. When other staff members engage in unprofessional behavior it can really shake our sense of security, especially if the administration isn’t stepping in to put an end to it. Unsafe behaviors come in many forms, such as lying, stealing, gossiping, tattletale, bullying or passive-aggressiveness.
If your school tolerates discrimination in any way, it’s a toxic environment. This could range from snide comments about a teacher’s sexual orientation or a child with a disability in a staff meeting to a principal blatantly disregarding laws.
10. No support with student behavior problems
Even the most seasoned teachers need support with student behavior problems sometimes. When the administration doesn’t have consistent support available, it sets up both teachers and students for frustration and failure.
11. Shaming behaviors
“I was shamed by the principal for sitting down to eat my lunch in the staff break room. She said I must no be working as hard as the rest of the team if I’m able to sit down for lunch away from my classroom,” a middle school teacher shared with Bored Teachers.
12. The principal doesn’t value employees
It’s easy to tell when a principal values their staff and when they don’t. It really is the little things that paint a big picture. Here’s what one high school teacher had to share with us: “I worked under the same principal for 13 years and he never once said my name. I moved to a new school and my new principal greets me by name with a smile every single day from day one.”
13. Divided staff
Some schools have an atmosphere of “us vs them.” Teachers vs. administrators. Coaches vs. non-coaches. Those who work until 6 pm vs. those who leave when the school day ends.
14. Allowing teachers to be abused
Administrators who don’t step in when parents or students are verbally or physically attacking teachers is a huge mark of a toxic school environment.
15. Intimidating evaluations
Evaluations should offer constructive examples of ways teachers should improve as well as affirmation of teacher strengths. Evaluations that consistently bring teachers to tears aren’t helpful or healthy.
16. Guilt to give more time and materials
It’s not healthy when an admin or fellow teacher tries to make staff feel guilty for not giving more of their own time, resources, or money for classroom projects.
17. Administration not having the teacher’s back
Sure, administrators sometimes need to critique and reprimand teachers, but doing this without first listening to the teacher’s point of view isn’t helpful. It’s disheartening when an administrator never takes your side or even considers your point of view.
18. Poor communication
It’s important for leaders to communicate clearly and distribute information in an organized way. Otherwise, the work environment quickly becomes a chaotic place with everyone scrambling to figure out what to do.
19. Moving teachers around without their input
”I taught upper elementary for 15 years when I was moved to 1st grade without any choice,” a veteran teacher shared with us. Adding, “And I was assigned to mentor the first-year teacher next door when I was new to this grade myself.”
20. There’s no praise for your accomplishments.
If you’ve finished a certificate program, been nominated for an award, or received praise from a parent, your coworkers and administrator should celebrate with you. However, in a toxic environment, others may feel threatened by your success and even attempt to make you feel bad about it.
If your school is a toxic work environment, it might be time to start applying elsewhere. Many teachers report immediately feeling more energetic, healthier, and happier as soon as they changed schools. One teacher shared with us, “I left my toxic school after my hair started falling out due to stress. I’d thought about leaving teaching entirely, but decided to try a school change first. I’m so glad I did. My hair grew back nicely and I actually like teaching again!”