When Schools Become Toxic

Is Your School System Toxic?

When I debuted The Unexplained Maine Classroom six months ago, I vowed to keep the conversation positive.  There are too many blogs and articles out there that disparage the teaching profession with endless complaints and too few solutions. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to have a serious conversation about change without talking about what needs to be changed, I believe it is necessary in this forum to offer solutions.  It makes for better reading and it provides intentionality to this project.  In other words, we can point fingers and shake our heads all year long, but I guarantee this will not result in change of any meaningful sort.

I just finished another graduate course for educators this week.  It was a course entirely devoted to influencing and facilitating change in one’s school environment. One reason I love taking graduate courses with other educators in Maine is that I get to hear other people’s stories and compare notes with other teachers from across the state.  I’ve taught in Maine’s biggest cities and in some of its most rural districts as well, and I love networking with other teachers and hearing what life is like in their schools and in their districts.

What struck me this time around was the spectrum of satisfaction with the professional climate in Maine’s schools represented among my classmates. Everyone had stories to tell about their work/school lives, and they ran the gamut from the pinnacle of professionalism, camaraderie and devotion to devastating toxicity and indifference.   It was delightful to hear some reports from folks who take great pride in their collaborative teaching teams, supportive school leadership and innovative learning environments.  I am happy to report they do exist.  

Now not to dwell on the negative, but here is the part where we talk about what needs to be changed.  Why is it not the case that collaborative teaching teams, supportive leadership and innovative learning is the norm in Maine schools?  I am sad to report that there are school systems in our state that harbor toxic professional climates and lackluster learning environments, and worse, some of these places have earned a reputation for it.

“Toxic” is a strong word to describe the place we send children to learn and grow, but the term gets tossed around a lot.  I admit I have used it to describe work environments of years gone by.  It can happen anywhere.  When toxicity shows up in a school environment, though, it really ought to be seen as an emergency.  And communities need to know how to recognize it and take measures to address it. Pointing fingers and complaining for years on end will not fix the problem.  It’s not the government’s fault, and you can’t blame the teachers, your taxes, or even parents.  If a school environment has gone toxic, there are a number of factors at play that make change difficult.

But first, what do we mean by ‘toxic’?  What are the symptoms, and what does a school environment that is plagued with such symptoms look like?  It may take some careful observing and investigating.

From a teacher’s perspective, it looks like apathy, dissent, low motivation and low morale among colleagues.  Teachers are one hundred percent at fault for this.  Recall the many other installments of The Unexplained Maine Classroom that cite working conditions that make innovative, exciting teaching extremely difficult.  Years of dealing with inflexible scheduling, maxed-out budgets, inadequate resources and disinterested students can take its toll on any teacher.  I like to talk about the professional time drought that exists in schools in this blog; teaching back-to-back lessons for the duration of the school day does not allow for adequate preparation and planning, let alone time to breathe and recover from teaching any lesson.  It leaves a teacher tempted to take shortcuts in the planning and facilitation of a lesson. Worksheets and textbook drills become an attractive, albeit relatively ineffective and boring, option for getting through the day.  This can be habit forming in schools where expectations are low, schedules are rigid and inflexible, and support systems are lacking.  And clearly, these places exist and these habits have taken hold.  

It’s trickier when you look at it from the perspective of parents and the outside community.  Students are the most accessible gauge, but just because your teenager comes home from school and declares his or her day was “boring” does not mean your child’s school is in need of some sort of overhaul.  It’s important for parents to become involved in their child’s school, to volunteer when or if possible, and see for themselves what the environment looks like.  Also, having conversations with other parents about their experiences with the school climate and learning environment is important too.  When great things happen, word gets around, as it does when nothing great happens.  It’s important also for members of the community to talk to teachers and other school personnel to get an idea of what their lives are like at work.  Do they seem unhappy all the time? Do they seem to love their work and their students?  Do they seem exhausted all the time? Do other parents have the same impressions?

There is a difference between a community of professional educators that works hard, cares deeply about their impact, yet still suffers from burn-out and emotional fatigue, and an educational climate that is spent, truly suffering from low morale and apathy and a sense of general powerlessness.  The former is commonplace, and something this blog attempts to regularly address.  The latter is a smaller fraction of the whole, but very much as big an issue.  Both conditions stem, I believe, from the same root, which is too much time and energy spent each day teaching back-to-back lessons and not enough hours built into the work day allotted to innovating, planning lessons, and reviewing student work.  That’s enough to make work challenging for anyone, but when you add other conditions to the mix, like depleted resources, outdated texts and lessons, lack of quality professional development, out-of-touch technology, lack of trust among colleagues and building and/or district leadership, things can go down a bleak, ugly path and get stuck there for a long time.  I am never one to blame teachers for these conditions, but it is these conditions that brew apathy, which can be a precursor to ineffective, outmoded teaching.  

Even trickier than diagnosing this kind of trouble from afar, or outside the tight circle of a public school professional community, is addressing it.  I believe that positive change in schools happens most often when that change is presented as a support to teachers, building leaders, students and education stakeholders as a whole. Attacks tend to generate more negativity and ugly battles that rarely yield significant results.  They also usually oversimplify the cause of the problems.  So I’m not for targeting anyone for blame except in rare cases in which there is serious corruption or other very inappropriate activity.  And that’s not what we’re talking about here.  

The reason I bring this to the forefront of our discussion today is the very nature of toxicity in school settings can be incredibly difficult to get rid of, like mold lurching in the dank corners and dark basements of an old home.  Think of the disillusionment of a new teacher, like a new homeowner, in his or her first year on the job.  New teachers have so much energy and enthusiasm, but to land in a building full of washed-up, closed-doored, antiquated and disaffected colleagues, well, what is one to do?  Jumping ship after year one is not good on the resume, and crying foul as the newbie on the block can put any hope of developing trusting relationships with coworkers, and even the boss, at risk.  So for the benefit of those passionate, energetic, not-yet-disillusioned educators that may represent the only hope a school might have for finally transitioning into the 21st century, communities need to be alert and vigilant.  What reputation does your school district have?  Can you honestly say there are excellent and innovative things happening?  And I am not talking about football or basketball.  If all you can do is boast about how great the athletic program is, well, athletics are wonderful, but that might be indicative of problems lurking just within the classroom walls.  Are teachers collaborating and are they encouraging students to collaborate?  Are teachers listened to by their administrators, and trusting of them, on the whole?  Are teachers encouraged to think “outside the box”? Do they encourage students to do the same?  

The best way to be vigilant is to be active within the school system, ask lots of questions, support your child’s teachers, and talk to other parents.  Hopefully your school district is doing a lot of things right, and if it is, let teachers and principals and school board members know.  If you start to detect any the aforementioned signs of toxicity among the professional communities in your schools, ask teachers and principals and school board members how you and other members of your community can help facilitate change.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.