As teachers, and perhaps especially new teachers, we’re always expected to be willing to go “above and beyond” in a way that’s not asked of many other jobs. We’re meant to be in this field because of our limitless passion, not simply as a “job” just to make ends meet. Similar to a toxic relationship, when we find ourselves giving, giving to a point of mental exhaustion and burnout with little to no reward or recognition, it may be time to ask a very important question: is this environment healthy for me?
Here’s some signs that you may be in a toxic school environment:
1. You feel like you have to hide your struggles.
Do you stiffen when you hear the door handle turn in the middle of a lesson, only to sigh with relief when it’s a student not an administrator? Do you feel anxious when you get a hint that a student may have talked to another teacher about what happens in your classroom? Feeling this way isn’t normal. If you’re in constant fear of judgement you may be in a toxic work environment. If you feel unsafe to share your struggles with admin or colleagues, how can you grow? And if you’re not growing, what are you doing?
2. Asking for help feels like a weakness.
This one cuts deep. Particularly in the areas of classroom management, new or transitioning teachers can sometimes come to some stuck points. Have you heard the advice “never send a kid to the office, because it will make admin think you can’t manage your classroom” and agreed with it? If you feel like asking for help would lead to judgement or somehow hurt your reputation with admin or colleagues, you may be in a toxic environment.
3. Sharing isn’t happening.
One tactic used by manipulative leaders is to pit teachers against each other. If the teachers in your team are fueled by a spirit of competition, then it’s likely they won’t be eager to share their materials or tips for success. The mentality is this: success is a finite resource and the achievements of others take away from mine. I taught in a school where state testing scores were so competitive, that other teachers refused to share any of their resources with me. How sad! A rising tide raises all ships! If teachers in your school are hesitant to share or support others due to a spirit of competition, you may be in a toxic environment.
4. You’re often made to feel like you aren’t doing enough.
Is there a culture of shame in your school from admin or other teachers about leaving right at the end of contract time? Do you feel pressured to not use your sick days? Do you feel like you should be spending a lot of your own money to design a Pinterest perfect classroom? Are you spending nights and weekends, your personal time, on school work and still feeling inadequate? Are you slightly embarrassed to admit that school isn’t the most important thing in your life? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be in a toxic environment.
5. Children or parents are treating you abusively and administration is not supporting you.
I’m not talking about the behavior of typical children where rules and boundaries must be tested. I’m not talking about the behavior of typical parents who fiercely fight for what’s best for their child. I’m talking about extremely inappropriate behavior that’s meant to make you feel small as a person. Words and actions that cross a line. You’re not meant to just take it. Tell an administrator as soon as possible if you feel violated and if they don’t support you, then you may be in a toxic environment.
6. You wake up in the morning and your first emotion is dread.
Here’s the real kicker for me. By the end of my fourth year in a toxic school environment, I was convinced I was the worst teacher in the world. I was so closed off from any support that I never discussed the way I felt with anyone. I woke up every morning with a sick feeling in my stomach, dreading the day ahead. I trudged through my day in survival mode, the opposite of growth mode. I was unmotivated to make changes because I had accepted that this is the way it is. If you relate to what I’m saying, you may be in a toxic environment.
If you are reading this and you feel strongly that you are in a toxic environment, you are not alone. I have personally been where you are, and I empathize strongly. Beginning my career I had unfortunately been so groomed for misery with the constant reminder that “your first few years will be HARD!” that I never stopped to realize that although starting out in this field is difficult, you should be supported! You should feel safe sharing your struggles, and there should be at least a few other teachers around you who enthusiastically support and encourage you. If the school you’re in leaves you feeling icky at the end of the day, trust your gut. If you’re pretty sure you’re not growing, you’re probably not wrong. This isn’t the end, and you can always make a change! Start job hunting or connect with more helpful teachers through social media. I’ve found the community of teachers on Reddit to be one of the most honest places online to discuss the realities of this career. You’re not alone in the way you feel, and you most certainly shouldn’t have to hide it!
Teaching is a weird job. I’d love to connect and discuss our successes and failures on my Instagram (@stemstrength). Please reach out and ask me anything.