It is hard to believe that toxic school cultures exist and how similar the experiences are of our teaching staff across many of our schools today! What we find happening behind closed doors is unacceptable and impacts our pupils in a negative way and it is usually the highest performing teachers who aren’t afraid to jump ship first! Some of the professionals that teach our future generations integrity, respect, empathy, humility and collaboration are the same individuals who are also responsible for creating a negative environment. This results in dedicated teaching staff leaving the profession and bad behaviours and habits becoming the norm.
Sheetal Smith, an experienced leader, shares her own experiences and the true darkness in the teaching profession.
What is meant by a toxic school culture?
Having read, shared and listened to many stories over the past year, a toxic school culture is defined as an environment where professionals are not on the same page; do not trust each other and where the performance and mental health of teaching staff has impacted in a negative way. It is the result of behaviours and habits that have been left un-checked time and time again and unfortunately has become accepted as the norm.
My personal experience
As I read through the literature on the National Qualification for Headship, the phrase,’ ‘Improving pupils’ life chances,’ seems to linger in my mind. Whilst reading about school cultures and climates, it is a reminder of why I came into teaching seventeen years ago. I decided to be a teacher because I wanted to make a difference; I wanted to be the person who created positive changes and improve the life chances of all the pupils who came in my path. I love the sparkle, the magic and the lightbulb moments. I have always been a driven teacher and leader who is capable of driving school improvement – I’m often seen as the ‘fixer’ because I see things that have been missed by others. I have an impressive track record for improving pupil outcomes and raising standards across several schools.
As teachers and leaders, it is our responsibility to maintain a strong school culture where there are high expectations of both staff and pupils. It is important to have trust, efficacy, teamwork, engagement with data, organisational learning and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is up to us to improve pupils’ life chances together but what if there is a total breakdown of relationships? As human beings, how do you go back to a team that has given you grief: they have bullied you, shown racial micro-aggressions and truly made school life a living nightmare? Would you stay? It is not always the leaders that are the bullies…
Unfortunately, a while ago, I experienced being in the deepest, darkest ditch of my teaching career. I had returned to a workplace that I honestly adored. Over the years, I had been responsible for driving improvements in many curriculum areas and ensuring school standards were the highest they had ever been. I was leading the preparation of an Ofsted inspection and was pretty confident I would get the school to outstanding. Due to the pandemic, my maternity leave and the absence of our Headteacher, the school was unable to keep up with all the government expectations and a lot needed to be done.
It all started on my return with a temporary leadership title. As you can imagine, keeping everyone happy in a workplace is a challenge in itself. But this was different. It was personal. Colleagues were unhappy with the choice – ‘Why is she in charge? What does she know? I have been here longer! I’m older! I know the school better!’ Seems quite small and petty when you think about it now. Truth is, day-by-day, the environment became toxic due to the fixed mindset of individuals and their bad behaviours.
From the start, there was no pressure – I truly pleaded with everyone to do what was right for our pupils and for the school in the absence of our Headteacher. The title didn’t matter to me – I had already done much more without one. Despite efforts to collaborate and share the school’s vision and values for the next academic year, the fact that it was me was the biggest battle: this young, driven, brown Londoner – the minority.
It is difficult to live in a society where you are always having to prove yourself because of the colour of your skin. Despite having the qualifications and the track record, people are unaccepting of you because you are a non-white individual living in a white world. It is truly exhausting! You can’t ever let your guard down – you can’t make a mistake – your white counterpart will always be forgiven but you won’t – you are non-white – you are not respected at the same level. Unfortunately, despite every effort to rectify the situation, it was not long before I became the villain. I’m not sure why? The lies to the Chair of Governors, the Headteacher and new members of staff began to take their toll.
The intimidating members of staff truly threw me under the bus. Despite improving school standards and being thankful that their colleague could do a good job – my temporary title, my brown skin and my drive was the problem. They paralysed the workforce and it resulted in my mental health being affected like never before. It was the unexpected behaviour whilst being under so much pressure: looking the other way as I walk by, purposely leaving me out of conversations, lying about me, criticising my decision making despite them being verified by the Headteacher, spreading rumours, biting their tongue at me – you get the picture. Fulfilling the duties of a full-time class teacher, an Acting Head and having a sickly baby at home became intense and stressful. Every day became longer than the day before and the sleepless nights began. The support I was promised did not exist and I had no choice but to leave. The biggest disappointment was the lack of integrity and honesty; I did not want to be part of a world where people had lost sight of what truly mattered. On my last day, one of the perpetrators even said, ‘Off you go then!’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – the behaviour was very far from our school values that we were promoting daily. The deep wounds are yet to heal…
Where am I now?
At the time, I felt quite fragile – there was a lot to contend with. But the experience taught me everything I do not ever want to be. The more I shared my story, the more I realised how common it was in the teaching profession. My friend, a talented Black female, was constantly racially abused in the teaching profession – she once informed me that she was extremely unwell: vomited in the staff room bin in front of a senior leader. Instead of going home, she was asked to drink some water and go back to class to teach. In contrast, her white counterpart, who had a tough morning in class, was told to go home because she was feeling stressed. How is this right? I have been told about Asian teachers being asked not to bring in Indian food during lunchtime or not to dress in salwar kameez – when did staff become so controlling? How are we teaching tomorrow’s generation about equality when the very people teaching children do not believe in what they are preaching? I have read and listened to stories about bullying time and time again…
I want to be the leader that lifts everyone around me; the leader that shows empathy and has the ability to empower staff to achieve strategic goals by creating a culture of trust and respect between colleagues. The leader who shows honesty, respect and integrity because I want to be in a community that does ‘the right thing because it is the right thing to do.’ The leader who ensures we truly do improve the life chances of future generations and does not lose sight of the bigger picture.
The experience opened many unexpected doors. I became the voice of the thousands of Black and Asian women in the teaching workforce who have yet to find the courage to share their experiences to the world; my writing has been published for thousands to read and I’ve made relationships with people who are truly fighting for change. I was promoted and now have the opportunity to ensure there is respect, collaboration and integrity in the workplace. I read the millions of stories on the Facebook group – ‘Life after teaching – exit the classroom and thrive’ – the nearly 80K members who are leaving or have left the profession that showed them no respect despite their years of service.
I’m still healing because there are so many unanswered questions and I am waiting for an apology that is never coming. But my story is not a new one. This is occurring daily in our schools and so many dedicated staff are quitting the profession – why would you want to stay? So, let us remember why we chose to work in a school and how we should be living the values we promote. Show respect, honesty, integrity and collaboration – do what is right for your pupils even if that means having a difficult conversation – it is always about integrity. Treat people equally – we are human and we are proud of the colour of our skin – we can teach, we can lead and the colour of our skin does not determine how good we are.