Why are some schools toxic? Why is there a culture of toxic schools anyway?
The simple answer is: fear.
‘Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.’ (To quote a popular 1960’s Sci-Fi Novel: Dune by Frank Herbert).
I used to be a Head teacher. I lasted 3 years before returning to teaching; the job made me stressed and anxious and was probably the hardest period of my life so far-I was living in fear.
I suspect that if I had stayed as a Head teacher, my school would have turned toxic, the warning signs were there; the school culture was not what I had ever intended, it was a culture of fear.
When I started as a Head teacher, I was full of optimism and enthusiasm. I had a vision of what I felt made a good school and I felt I had a clear idea how to develop my new school. In my first year as a Head I worked hard to build an atmosphere of trust-I wanted staff to feel they could take risks and try new things. I wanted staff to support each other and have ownership of their own learning. There was generally a positive atmosphere in the school, the staff team were great and from my perspective things were going well.
There were lots of challenges: the school was changing from a first school (up to Y4) to a primary school and we were due to move to a new building which was still undergoing building works, it was also converting from 1 form entry to 2 form entry. I relished these challenges and saw it as an ideal change to shape the future of the school. It was exciting, it was challenging.
I made lots of mistakes in my first year as a head but I generally felt positive about it.
And then came the SAT’s results.
Now this was our first ever experience of KS2 SAT’s. This cohort of Y6’s was our first-and there were only 14 kids in the year group. Without trying to make excuses, my school (and many others in Suffolk that year) were hopelessly unprepared for what SAT’s and UKS2 involves.
We got some of the worst SAT’s results in the county.
You could argue that a lot of the reasons for these poor results were down to how the children had been taught and how the school was run before I or the Y6 teachers joined the school, but frankly, that’s irrelevant. I was now the Head teacher of one of the worst schools in Suffolk-that’s how I saw it and I’m sure that’s how many others saw it.
I became afraid. I felt responsible-I was responsible, but only partly. I was anxious about how we would be perceived by the community-and if I’m completely honest, I was anxious about how I would be perceived. The previous Head teacher had been very popular and was well respected. I knew her and had previously worked for her and I respected her greatly, so I also felt that I was letting her down-she had trusted me with taking over her school and I was making a mess of it.
My relationship with the local authority changed at this point. I had always felt they challenged in a supportive way in the past and were good at working with schools to make things better. They were under considerable pressure themselves, Suffolk was all over the national news because the local authority had been recently rated as inadequate by Ofsted.
They conducted a learning review of the school. I naively viewed it as an opportunity for the staff and myself to get some constructive feedback. I encouraged the staff to take the approach I had always taken to lesson observations-see it as an opportunity to try things out, take risks, and get feedback from a supportive observer. How naive, how foolish.
That is exactly what my staff did: they tried things out, they took risks, and as with all risk taking it didn’t always work. Some of the staff, people who I knew were outstanding teachers, were slated by the local authority inspectors-and they made sure they told them they thought they were inadequate. The result of the review was a school with shattered confidence. Some staff would take a long time and a lot of re-building to recover.
School well-being was at an all time low.
And this is where the first seeds of a toxic school started to take root.
I felt under immense pressure. I did my part and engaged with all of the support the local authority offered me. I listened to and acted on a lot of the advice that the advisors gave me in their regular visits; I engaged with the experienced Head teacher they had put me in touch with, I did everything they wanted me to to satisfy them and their vision for what my school should be. And through all of this, I lost myself. I forgot my own core values, I forgot my vision for the school, and I felt like a headless chicken, being pulled from pillar to post and trying to satisfy an endless set of contradictory advice on what I should be doing in my school.
During this period, I failed to do the one thing that every Head teacher should do: I failed to protect my staff.
I like to think of the style of leadership I was being encouraged to emulate as the ‘football manager’ style of leadership. A football manager builds a team by getting rid of the people they don’t rate or don’t suit the way they want their team to play and gets other players that fit their philosophy better. Except it’s not so simple with teachers, you can’t just transfer them to another school.
This was all happening at the time that our dear Mr Gove changed the accountability system, which made it a lot easier for school leaders to tackle poorly performing staff.
I had changed from someone who was trying to build a professional learning community built on trust, mutual respect and risk taking, to someone who put my staff under intense scrutiny. I observed lessons, scrutinised books and plans and held progress meetings with regularity and rigorously held staff to account that I didn’t feel were taking action on the things I had identified for them to do. I introduced non-negotiables and expected consistency and uniformity in how things were done but failed to properly consult or involve my staff in the development of these expectations.
I obsessively recorded all of this monitoring in an effort to build up evidence of what was happening in my school so I could justify and prove to my external masters that I was improving the school.
This was all driven by fear.
Fear of Ofsted, fear of the local authority, fear of the next consultant who had no accountability that I had to be seen to listen to to prove to others I was engaging in trying to improve.
I was under regular pressure from the local authority to start capability proceedings with teachers, teachers who I had felt were good teachers before they had had their confidence destroyed. Eventually I relented and this resulted in 2 teachers going off sick with stress.
One of them eventually successfully returned to teaching, the other one didn’t. I still feel really sad about that because he was a lovely person and I feel he had a lot to give as a teacher. I had failed to support him well enough and I still feel responsible for ruining his career now.
It is ironic that some leaders try to get people to perform better by putting them under pressure and making them stressed and anxious when that is the very thing that will make them perform worse. When you feel happy you tend to perform better; a little bit of pressure isn’t a bad thing, a lot of pressure is extremely damaging.
The process of holding staff to account through the performance management system, using ‘support plans’ and capability measures took a huge toll on me emotionally. I felt responsible for these staff and I felt like I had failed them.
At the end of that school year we had some good news. Our SAT’s results that year were a significant improvement. Was this justification for all of the scrutiny and pressure I had put on the staff? The school wasn’t a happy place, I know that for sure. For me, it was a glimmer of hope that the local authority would step back a bit and loosen the pressure valve, but that wasn’t to be the case.
The following year Ofsted arrived, and it was actually a fairly positive experience; much more positive and constructive than when the local authority inspected the school. We didn’t get the ‘inadequate’ rating the local authority had been telling me we would get every time they visited for the last year. We didn’t get good either, but were rated as ‘requires improvement’ but the report actually read very well and was complimentary about a lot of things happening in the school.
But by this point I had had enough.
I reflected on my experiences as a Head teacher up to that point and realised I had completely lost my way. I was becoming one of those leaders who is very authoritarian, tries to sound like they are an expert in everything (even when they know very little about the subject) and didn’t want to admit to my mistakes for fear of showing weakness. I had lost my identity and had become someone who I didn’t like. I had forgotten my core values and I had forgotten my vision for the school.
I was also starting to become mentally unwell; I started having anxiety attacks. My resilience was at an all time low. I was feeling depressed and feeling like a failure, and so I decided to resign.
Unfortunately toxic schools have become far too common nowadays and I honestly believe that the people leading those schools are under immense pressure and are terrified. Some of those leaders will have lost sight of crucial values such as empathy and kindness.
You need incredible reserves of resilience to be a Head teacher, and you have to be incredibly strong to hold onto your values and your core beliefs.
Luckily, not every school out there is toxic. Not everyone has used the accountability system to ascribe to the ‘football manager’ style of leadership and there are some truly inspirational people out there. I have read about head teachers who have taken over ‘failing’ schools and turned them around without changing any staff, and schools where well-being and trust in teachers is at the forefront of what they do. There are also Head teachers that make it their business to rescue the waifs and strays, the people who have had their confidence shattered in a toxic school, and help build them back up into a confident teacher again.
When I reflect on my time as a Head teacher, I regret that I wasn’t stronger, I regret that I didn’t stand up for what I believed in. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and kindness and I firmly believe the way to building a good school is by working with the people that are part of it, helping them to develop to be the best they can be in a trusting atmosphere where it is ok to take risks and be creative. I didn’t manage to achieve that as a Head teacher because I caved under the pressure of trying to get results quickly.
I also came to realise that the thing that has consistently made me happy in my career is teaching, spending time in the classroom with the children and that is what I returned to. It turned out to be the right decision for me and the last few years as a class teacher have been the happiest of my career. I believe that you should do the things that make you happy, because well-being matters. Good leaders know this and I’m thankful for all of the good leaders out there showing that that there is a better way of doing things if you are brave enough.
Love? Well, this is a trickier one for me. I’m a fairly stereotypical British male so I don’t spend a lot of time talking about love.
My father came from a very traditional upbringing and it was ground into him that men don’t share their feelings. I love my father dearly, he is a patient and kind man; he has never once told me, or my brother and sister, that he loves us. I know he does, he shows it in his own way and he obviously loves my mum. He adores the woman, despite the constant nagging and bossing around she subjects him to, (he just turns his hearing aid off so he can’t hear it, it drives her round the bend!).
But it because of this upbringing, I have always made an effort to tell my family that I love them. My wife laughed when I told her what today’s theme was, because her immediate thoughts about love were ‘romance’. I am not romantic in the slightest, but luckily neither is my wife, so we suit each other well.
So, when I thought about love I decided that I would try and describe one moment in time that demonstrates what love is to me. I could tell you about my wedding day, or the feeling I have for my class every year when I read them their leavers poem and wave them off on their journey to high school, or I could talk about the feeling I get when I hear ‘You’ll never walk alone’ and how it always brings a lump to my throat, but I’m not going to do that, I’m going to talk about my daughter.
I have 2 children, and I love them both dearly, but the moment I want to share with you came in 2010 when my daughter was 5 and was one of those rare times when I have been totally overwhelmed by love and happiness.
It was a very simple moment in time, but for me it was perfect. It was Christmas time and the John Lewis Christmas advert came on the TV (I eagerly await it every year). I don’t remember anything about the advert now other than the song; it was Ellie Goulding singing her version of ‘Your Song’ by Elton john.
I was sat on the sofa next to my 5 year old daughter, she was a daddy’s girl then, she still is now. I sat with her cuddled up next to me and while I watched the advert and listened to the words of the song I felt a sudden burst of emotion-love for my daughter who had come into my life and changed it for ever, and I just started crying-but they were tears of happiness. My daughter didn’t even notice and I have never told her about this. That moment in time just felt perfect to me, it was so simple but I was so happy that she had come into my life.
Still today, when I hear ‘Your Song’ I get emotional and it takes me back to that perfectly simple moment.
I like to think of myself as being fairly wise, but what is wisdom, how do we define this quality?
Well, the wisdom I have comes from experience- from years of making unwise choices and learning from my mistakes.
I have been teaching for around 20 years and have experienced a lot of changes in education in that time. When I was an inexperienced teacher I used to look on these new changes with dread or excitement, depending on the situation, and looked at the more experienced members of staff with scorn-scorn at their comments about the cyclical nature of education, and the cynicism of ‘we’ve done this before’. It wasn’t all of the experienced teachers, I hasten to add, some were positive and enthusiastic but all had a certain level of caution that comes from being subjected to the endless changes of education policy for too long.
Now, 20 years down the line, I like to think I’m still positive and enthusiastic about education but I also know that to a certain extent those cynical, jaded teachers were right-education does go in cycles. I have seen it for myself-the sway in popularity from progressive to traditional methodologies and back again, the obsessive scrutiny of teachers and need for people to prove they are doing their job to the trust and development and agency and focus on prioritising well-being amongst other things. And I have learnt through experiencing these shifts back and forward to stay positive in the tough times, because I know from experience that things will change, they always do.
Generally, wisdom wins through in the end and people stop and reflect: does this work? Is it making things better? Is it useful? I just wish people would reflect on those things sooner sometimes.
So, is wisdom just common sense?
People who lack common sense tend to be impulsive or struggle to see the bigger picture and think beyond themselves and what is immediately in front of them. Sometimes they lack empathy and can’t think how things may affect others, or they struggle to visualise what the consequences of their actions might be. People with common sense tend to be more cautious, and better at seeing the bigger picture and think through consequences before acting.
I am a cautious, reflective person by nature, I always have been, but this means I have generally taken the ‘safe option’ in life. And whilst, this could be considered the wise choice, is it always? There is a school of wisdom that says ‘live life for the moment’ and ‘take risks’. There are plenty of successful people out there who have taken risks and seized their moment and they have been greatly rewarded for doing so.
I am also beginning to wonder whether wisdom is actually valued anyway. Without straying into politics too much there are some world leaders out there who are incredibly influential but are definitely not wise (you all know who I’m thinking of), whereas the wise, experienced leaders, full of common sense, empathy and understanding don’t seem to be valued or listened to.
And do we value the wisdom of age enough? My grandparents lived through WW2 and spent most of their lives living in a small council house in Glasgow, they had so much wisdom, but as a child I didn’t take the time to listen to much of it.
When I was a young teacher I wasn’t very wise, but I was wise enough to listen to those who had more experience than me. When I joined SLT I was wise enough to listen to those who had more knowledge than me, no matter their role and status within school (I know very little about early years education, but I’ve been lucky to work with some great practitioners who I was always sensible enough to listen to).
I have learnt over time that I’m not always as wise as I like to think I am; I could always listen to others more, there is always more to learn.
The most important things I have learnt are:
Happiness is more important than money;
if you want things to change, you have to change yourself-you are the only person you have control over;
when you are feeling stressed deal with the things you have control over and put aside the things you don’t;
be kind and show the people you love how much they mean to you
and it’s ok to make mistakes-it’s how we learn, how we become wiser.
I’m going to keep living my life trying to follow these lessons and hopefully every day I will get a little bit wiser.