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September 1, 2019
Vol. 61
No. 9

10 Signs of a Toxic School Culture

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School Culture
Robyn Jackson reports that she can tell what kind of culture a school has within five minutes of entering the front door. Jackson, a former National Board–certified teacher and administrator turned education consultant, spoke at the ASCD Empower19 conference in Chicago, Ill., about the warning signs of a toxic school culture and what leaders can do to disrupt it.

Warning Signs

1. No clear sense of purpose. If school administrators and teachers don't share a common goal, they will work toward their own agenda, which will eventually create conflict.
2. Hostile relations among staff, students, and parents. When elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers. When the adults in the room fight, no one can focus well on the most important thing: the students.
3. An emphasis on rules over people or mission. This issue is often created at the district level. Teachers are more focused on the rules than on serving students and feel they have little latitude to do their jobs.
4. An absence of honest dialogue. Principals who avoid difficult conversations with teachers and address issues by reassigning the teacher or changing a teacher's schedule aren't truly serving kids.
5. More self-preservation than collaboration. When self-preservation takes priority over serving kids, it's difficult for good ideas and talented teachers to stick around.
6. Active back channels over formal lines of communication. If more is being said and accomplished in unofficial meetings after the staff meeting, it's a sign that teachers and faculty don't trust each other. If the rumor mill controls everything, it leaves an opening for people to make their own narratives. Whoever controls the narrative controls your school culture.
7. Punishment instead of recognition, and rewards and behavior motivated by the avoidance of punishment. If colleagues punish bad behavior and don't reward good behavior, the culture encourages students and staff to do the minimum to avoid getting punished, but not to excel.
8. A palpable lack of safety. If people are afraid to speak up, they can't address problems head on. When teachers aren't free to be vulnerable, they don't feel safe in uncomfortable conversations.
9. A small group who controls the conversation. If a few dominant voices control the culture of your school, toxicity thrives. It's imperative to find ways to help everyone speak up.
10. An absence of risk taking. People are afraid to do what they feel is right for kids because they're afraid to step away from the pack. If teachers try nothing new, the kids are the ones who suffer.

Where to Start

If you notice these warning signs, Jackson says it's important to intervene—not by hiring and firing, but by focusing on building a better school culture. Although this work is ongoing and far from easy, the first step is overhauling your school's core values, mission, and vision.
To form core values, Jackson recommends dividing teachers into small, naturally occurring groups, such as by grade level, and asking three questions:
  1. Imagine the students you have right now come back to speak at your retirement ceremony. What are the three most important things you want them to say about their experience with you?
  2. The students you have right now come back for their 25-year reunion. What do you want them to say about their experience in this school?
  3. As you consider these questions, what are some trends you're noticing that get at what your core values are?
From the core values ideas generated in these small group reflections, leaders can create a master list that all staff can review to select the most important values. Jackson recommends putting all the potential values in front of an all-staff meeting and giving each participant three dots to "vote" on the core values that resonate most with them.
"It's risky, but when you do that, you give everyone a veto, not just a voice," Jackson said.
The process of overhauling values, mission, and vision is healing in and of itself. When you shape your work around these things, Jackson said, you will change your culture—and leave no room for toxicity to grow.

Alexa Epitropoulos has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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