Toxic teachers and toxic leaders

During the leadership and management workshops we run with the trainees, one of the concepts we introduce them to is that of toxic workers. The theory is quite simple: in an organisation there are people who work very hard and perform their jobs to an acceptable standard, but whose interactions with others is so toxic that they reduce the productivity of others. In short, their net contribution to the organisation and the profession overall is very poor compared to someone who perhaps does not work as hard, but is a pleasure to collaborate and work with.

When the trainees were invited to say if they’d met such people in their lives prior to entering the profession they all volunteered stories. These stories came from all kinds of professions, but also included schools. Toxic teachers, toxic leaders, toxic managers. And the theory says – toxic people can rise quite well through the systems. The system rewards people who are toxic. This can be from the martyred single person department who does 60 hour weeks with bitterness and moaning and who never collaborates right up to a school leader burning good teachers out of the whole profession in pursuit of an ofsted grade of a P8 score. The end result is the same – the net contribution to the organisation and profession overall is negative and easily outweighs any of the positives generated.

There is much toxicity in education. You see it on edutwitter: ‘edu-trolls’ – deeply criticising and undermining all and sundry whilst seemingly doing good themselves. You see them in teachers, disdainfully dismissing all ideas about education from others, the government, from HEI, from anyone really. Anyone can be toxic and it can take a number of forms.

Communication can be toxic – who are the people you dread emails from? Why do you dread them? Are they passive aggressive? Are they down right rude? Are they ad hominem? Do you write such emails? Are you toxic? We do need to be reflective about our own practice.

Face to face communication can be toxic. In meetings, it’s the same – whose presence do you dread in meetings? Who would you least like to have do a learning walk on you? Who would you rather not do duty with?

Recently, online meetings have been vogue. Toxic practice exists here also. People who dominate the video side with aggressive questioning, people who passively aggressively refuse to turn their videos on when speaking or notice that their video is almost black with lack of light, people who chat in the chat box throughout an important presentation – the list is endless.

Policies can be toxic. Which policies make you despair? No evidence for the policy, focused on ‘what ofsted want’, controlling for the sake of controlling, and so forth. Relentless mock exams with no costing of the hourage spent by teacher who have to mark them. With mock exams, an already busy few weeks have to make room for days and days of marking. Which policies affect your well-being and make you want to leave the school or profession?

We are turning the profession around these days – I genuinely believe we have more schools, federations, HEIs, MATs and LAs focused on well-being, work load reduction and a better profession. But we also need to recognise the toxic pollution in our system and be more conscious of it. Not replying all or CCing in someone to an email. Not using passive aggressive language in a meeting. Not formulating a marking policy which makes people leave the profession. Overall, making the profession a place where new teachers want to stay, not leave.