The 3 Signs of Toxic School Culture

Over the past few years, I’ve seen and heard the term “toxic school culture” or “toxic schools” being used to depict various situations in which there are qualities that negatively impact the performance, mental health or working environment in our schools. 
It’s a term that is a source of great debate, as what qualifies as a “toxic school culture” to one teacher or School Leader is so very much dependent on context and the personalities/people involved.
Having read some of the accounts from teachers and School Leaders who have described their experiences of “toxic schools” and from my own experience in education, I would surmise that these experiences, are rarely caused by a wilful intent to toxify a school culture by any one party.
Rather they are a result of behaviours and habits (of staff and leaders alike) that left un-checked have become negative norms. Very often, initially, these behaviours and habits may not even be immediately obvious or even appear to be a huge problem.
However, in a delicate school ecosystem where emotions are contagious and behaviours can easily impact one another; these limiting behaviours, attitudes or habits can gradually become endemic and slowly hinder both staff performance and the culture of the school.
I am certain that in-spite of the stories that abound, the vast majority of teachers and School Leaders do not want to either create or be a part of such cultures. So, what are the early warning signs and how can teachers and School Leaders be better prepared to address them when they are in evidence?
There are probably many, but here are three that I consider to be of greatest importance:

1.Communication is Poor

Good communication is crucial in any school for developing a sense of stability, trust and collegiality. This is of particular importance, as we all know that in schools there can be some relational distance between senior leaders and those who occupy different roles within the school staffing structure.
In schools with strong levels of communication, the School Leadership team are in regular communication with all staff members, everyone is on the same page about where the school is going, what’s happening and what is expected of them.
Staff receive regular feedback and are coached by senior leaders to help them identify their strengths and areas for improvement. As a result, they know, where they are now, where they should be going and how their contribution fits into the wider school vision.
In addition, resources and best practice are regularly shared between teams; teaching is enriched, and staff development remains an on-going process of practice, discussion, sharing and reflection – individually and with others.
All of which is facilitated through the provision of safe spaces; where teachers can share their learning and reflections with each other and senior staff.  A culture is created in which all feel valued, heard and properly listened to.
These safe spaces  allow all staff to share key learning, professional challenges, take risks and learn from them; in the knowledge  that it won’t be held against them, as everyone shares a rounded view of the purpose of learning and development and  they also understand how good communication supports this process.
However, in schools where the culture feels toxic, none of this is true. Poor communication around all aspects of school life, hampers the development of the type of trusting relationships that are needed for all school to flourish.
When trust which is the glue that holds all relationships together is missing, real communication just doesn’t happen. It is all on a surface level. As a result, mis-communication is rife, negative relational norms begin to take root, which often breed a sense of confusion, unease and distrust.
To counter this happening consider:
– When does communication work best in your school?
– What facilitates/supports this?
– How can this best practice be built upon to support developments in other parts of the school?

2. Fear permeates most aspects of school life


“The external structures of education would not have the power to divide us as deeply as they do if they were not rooted in one of the most compelling features of our inner landscape – fear”

Parker Palmer: The Courage to Teach

It is the manipulation of this fear and an inability to address these inner fears in a humane way, that has also contributed to the creation of ‘toxic’ climates in some schools.
We are all human and so quite naturally, when the stakes are considered to be high e.g. a lesson observation or an OFSTED inspection, numerous fears will abound in the psyche of the individual. Fear of:
– Failure
– Not being good enough
– Challenge and not being able to come up with the ‘right’ answers
– Being seen to be wrong
– A negative judgement
If a safe space does not exist for these fears to be expressed openly and honestly, without fear of judgement, then cultures begin to develop that only serve to exacerbate feelings of disconnection, mis-trust and isolation. When fear is the prime modus-operandi for dictating behaviour, it becomes impossible for individuals to flourish. Consequently,  behaviours  that arise are linked to self-preservation; risk-taking and creativity very often fall by the way-side. The dominant inner and outer narrative is ‘play it safe.’
To counter the harmful effects of working in such an environment ask yourself:
– What is the impact on the way I embrace my role when I respond from a place of fear?
– How can I better equip myself to speak from a place of truth and honesty when I feel fear?
– What one small change can I make in my behaviour that will allow me to grow and take more risks?

3. Support has a detrimental impact on performance

Consider for a moment, your own definition of support. For me, support is about helping another person to carry a load. It is about providing non-judgmental assistance to enable a group or individual to make sense for themselves on how best to carry the ‘weight’ that they bear. For such support between individuals to be effective, there has to be a mutual trust and respect on both sides.
Where an environment in a school is deemed to be ‘toxic’, these types of relationships simply don’t exist.  Relationships are characterised as being low trust/high accountability (re below).

The dynamic that exists is often disempowering for the individual who is meant to be in receipt of the support. Because they have been told what to do, their actions are less rooted in who they are and little meaning is attached to the outcomes. As a result, he or she derives little ownership or satisfaction from their role.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, reflect on the support that you currently receive and ask yourself:
1. What are the hallmarks of ‘support’ conversations in my current context?
2 How do I often feel after the conversations have taken place?
3. To what degree have they helped me to improve my performance?
Toxicity, harmful ways of being in relationship with one another, only arise when there is a lack of awareness or the wherewithal to embrace and work positively with diversity and the very nature of what it means to be human.
The truth is schools are complex organisations; they always have and always will be. Because of the varied histories, backgrounds and identities of all who work in our schools. Rather than being seen as impediments to success, these variations should be seen as unique strengths on which all School Leaders and teachers can build upon for the benefit of everyone.

Are you looking to develop a Positive Culture in your School?

In my years of working with School Leaders, I’ve learned that one of the most important skills any School Leader can have is the ability to effectively manage and nurture personalities and relationships within their school. This is because quite simply, when school relationships are positive – the outcomes tend to be more positive too.
Conversely, when relationships are strained or neglected, school teams can struggle to effectively work together and staff can find themselves increasingly becoming disconnected from what the school and their leaders are trying to achieve. In turn, leaders can find themselves spending a large amount of their time dealing with people management issues, rather than focussing on the more strategic aspects of the role.
Yet in spite of this, many leaders have not received significant training or opportunities to develop skills that could help them to deal with difficult conversations, identify how best to manage and maximise staff performance.
That’s why one of the key ways that we support School Leaders fulfil their vision is by offering a 4 Day Coaching Programme designed to provide Senior School Leaders with the knowledge, skills and confidence to apply a range of coaching skills that can help improve the performance of those they lead and manage.
Our four-day coaching programme that will equip you with the skills for:
– Managing difficult conversations
– Understanding how to get the best out of individuals with challenging behaviours
– Understanding yourself better and knowing how to draw upon your strengths to get the best out of others
– Developing your relationship management skills by helping you understand how to identify and respond to different personality types
– Nurturing a Coaching Culture in your School so that you can support members of your team

Find out More



2 Responses

  1. I taught in a wonderful school in a very deprived area for many years. Children, parents and staff contributed to a sensitive, caring environment, yes, we had bad times, problems, things that went wrong, but we were all working to the same end, l was deputy head. We had a new head who had been removed from her previous school for ‘personal reasons’. Within weeks of her arrival the atmosphere changed to one where we were afraid to share problems, staff were publicly humiliated in front of children, support staff and dinner ladies were made to feel they were inferior, staff illness rose, some staff went on long term sick and eventually left. I was accused of many things l had not done, stealing, injuring a child, non cooperation until l finally went to County Hall, submitted my resignation and then announced l would die for constructive dismissal. Within 4 hours l was transferred to another school where l thrived for the next 12 years, the head in question was moved to another school where she was eventually sacked for financial mismanagement and removed from the General Teaching Register following the suicide of her then deputy. Justice and truth were not served.

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