STACEY HUGHES

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Covering different issues many of us experience in life.

Why are schools breeding grounds for toxicity, staff bullying and narcissistic behaviour?

29 June 2020

Toxic Schools


When I was asked if I wanted to contribute to a discussion regarding Toxic Schools, I absolutely jumped at the chance. Having taught for the past twenty years and being fortunate enough to move around, I have experienced a plethora of schools, therefore I feel I am in a perfect position to contribute to this topic.


I should begin with a disclaimer that I do not focus on any one particular school and I am lucky to have now found my forever school. The experiences I share are not all my own. Some of the things I discuss, I have experienced, others I have witnessed and there are plenty of stories out there for me to pick and choose examples. Twitter is awash with stories of Teacher Wellbeing. Just choose a hashtag and see where the journey takes you. It can be pretty frightening actually!


I will start with the Top 10 Toxic Traits of a School. I aimed for three, it grew to five and there were just so many examples of toxicity that I eventually settled on 10. It made me incredibly sad to expand my list, but I feel they are all essential.


I am then going to move on to strategies to either cope with or challenge toxicity in schools.


And I’ll finish with Suggested SLT Strategies.


My Top 10 Toxic Traits:


1. Senior Leadership and the Head Teacher/ Principal:

As an NQT, I recall thinking surely one person can’t really impact an entire school that much. That was pure naivety on my part. My years in schools has taught me, that actually, one person, does indeed develop the culture of a school. Be that positive or negative.


I have worked for fantastic leaders who have made work an absolute pleasure. I have worked for leaders who, after two years in post, do not even know my name. And I have worked for leadership that have been detrimental to the health and wellbeing of staff.


2. Cliques:

This, I feel, sits right at number 2. It’s not what you know but who you know. And whose army you belong to. In toxic schools the Head Teacher or Principal, will have people acting as their eyes and ears. They will report back on everything and keep the management one step ahead. This obviously leads to mistrust. Staff are unable to speak freely and whilst there’s nothing more cathartic than a good whinge at lunch time, in a toxic school this is not acceptable. You have to be careful what you say and who you say things to.


Another part of cliques is being spied at outside of the workplace. Having your social media scrutinised and being hauled into the office to justify a post you put on Facebook last November. Twitter is full of secret/anonymous profiles and many will tell you it’s because they have gotten into trouble at work, for openly discussing things they were unhappy about.


3. No support with student behaviour:

A favourite quote of mine comes from a Head Teacher who stood up in front of a whole staff meeting and declare ‘We have no behavioural problems in this school.” This was the same Head Teacher who had been known to chase students around the playground, trying to catch them, in order to speak to the students about an incident in class.


All too often teachers ask for help only to be asked ‘what have you done? I suggest you follow the school’s behaviour policy’, the responsibility put back to them. As professionals we would not ask for help without trying different strategies. And sometimes it’s not always possible to get hold of parents or carers before the end of the school day. And the students who we ask for help with are usually those known as the most challenging. The ones SLT simply don’t know what to do with. The ones SLT don’t have the pleasure of teaching.


The other side of this coin is blame. I once worked with an NQT who followed the school’s behaviour policy to the letter and was hauled into the office to be told she clearly had classroom management issues. I took her to one side and said nobody follows the behaviour policy as closely as she does, otherwise we’d all be in trouble. And in truth, some students get so many detentions that there just aren’t enough lunch times in the remainder of school year for the student to complete them all. You have to learn to choose your battles.


4. Lack of Praise:

Praise comes in many different forms and yet some schools simply don’t do enough of it. And it’s one of those situations where it can happen by accident. Take a school looking at really bad end of year results, a disappointing Ofsted inspection, poor attendance or poor behaviour. They focus on the change and there’s a belief ‘We need to get stricter. Have explicit expectations and drum them in until we see positive change’.


But what happens is people no longer feel valued, staff split and the hard work that everyone has put in, well it is not enough. The school become so focused on changing things for the better that they lose sight of everything that they already have. Which results in staff morale plummeting and school life becoming incredibly difficult. Student engagement declines whilst their self-doubt rockets and parent’s become overly critical, seeking explanations of how the school is going to turn things around.


It takes a great leader to support staff and say, ‘We are good, and we are going to keep going and keep improving. My staff are committed professionals and we ask you to support us during this difficult journey’. Sadly, what usually happens is Head Teachers are dismissed or threatened with dismissal and told to make rapid improvements. Which results in harsher lesson observations, increased workload, and unreasonable expectations. Stripping staff of their already depleted confidence.


Students are not rewarded because what was previously ‘good’ is now ‘not good’. Their rewards now completely out of reach and expectations far too high, especially for those students who already struggle to engage with school.


5. Meetings:

Nobody likes that person who asks a question at the end of the meeting. It’s been a long day and everybody just want to get home. Or back to their desk so they can get on with planning and marking.


Seriously though, are all meetings necessary? Do we have meetings just for the sake of having them? Yes, they are included in our notional hours but what teacher goes home from work and does no schoolwork? We know teaching is one profession in which staff can spend their evenings marking or planning tomorrow’s lessons.


Can a meeting be replaced with an email?


And anything over an hour is completely unnecessary and unproductive. You will have staff who have worked a full day plus playground duties and the last thing they need is a long meeting. They have not had time to eat, go the toilet or ring so and so’s mum to discuss their assessment grade. And SLT expect them to be switched on?


I have seen a woman sit and squirm as she watched the clock coming towards the end of an hour at a department meeting. She needed to collect her children from their childminder and if she was late, beyond their agreed collection time, she had to pay more. The person running the meeting knew this and took her time, talked about nothing remotely relevant and let the time tick on. The meeting lasted 90 minutes and the woman rushed out, knowing she would be charged extra by her childminder.


She was too afraid to excuse herself, as many people are. Because those who excuse themselves, in Toxic schools, are often judged. They may even be labelled difficult.


6. Unions:

A toxic school refuse to fully engage with unions. They will invite staff in for informal chats and formal meetings without saying ‘you may want to bring union representation’. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard teachers admit, “I should never have gone in to that meeting’.


7. Bullying:

A toxic school will have a culture of bullying. Staff will be singled out. Unreasonable demands will be made. Nit-picking will be a daily occurrence. Additional visits to your classroom. Last minute meetings. Being taken out of lessons to be spoken to.


Teachers will share their experiences and one teacher told of a time they were summoned into the Head Teacher’s office and told to hand over their own, personal, mobile phone. The reason? So the HT could check what the teacher had been talking about on text messages.


Another was made to hand over their mobile so SLT could read through a Whattsapp group chat. Months and months of private messages between colleagues.


And when all is said and done. A Non-Disclosure Agreement will be signed. To keep the teacher silent. Allowing the bullying to continue. Allowing the teacher to be controlled.


8. Communication:

In large organisations communication can always be questionable. But in a toxic school there will be lots of information kept from staff. Lots of whispering on corridors and behind closed doors. Staff finding information out from students, which is always poor practice.


Staff notice Mrs G is off and Little Johnny has been excluded for four days. No explanation given. First lesson: Miss, little Johnny has been excluded. Has he? Yes Miss. He attacked Mrs G in Science, threw a chair at her and she’s off now with stress and won’t be back before the end of term. Oh right, thanks for letting me know!


‘I’m having problems with Little Timmy. ‘Put him on detention’. Later finds out Little Timmy has lost both parents and lives with his aunt. It’s the anniversary of his father’s death. Little Timmy probably needs additional support, pretty sure a detention isn’t the answer.


9. Feedback:

In toxic schools’ staff don’t feel able to give honest and open feedback. Their views either won’t be heard or they will be shouted down. Their feedback isn’t valued, and their silence is preferred.


Those staff who do voice their concerns are classified as ‘troublesome’ and they will be turned down for promotions and requests such as going to see their own child’s school nativity play. Their life will be made difficult and sometimes they will be made an example of. Other staff don’t want to become the next target so keep their feedback to themselves. And the staff discussions needed occur outside of the meeting.


10. Expectations:

A toxic school will expect their staff to live for their job. They do not recognise teachers have a life outside of school and they will not see their expectations as anything other than acceptable. Emails will be sent at all hours of the day and night and weekends won’t be off limits either. There will be no work/life balance.


Strategies


1. Prioritise your own Mental Health.

Ultimately you are responsible for your own mindset. You cannot always control situations, you cannot control others, but you can control your own mindset, your own thoughts, and how you respond to situations.


Awareness is power. Toxic workplaces can overwhelm many and it is for this very reason why you must make a conscious effort to choose how to respond. Knee jerk reactions are usually very unhelpful. Find strategies that work for you.

Look after yourself mentally as well as physically. Eat right, exercise, sleep well. If meditation works for you, meditate. If reading helps you relax, then read. Prioritise yourself.


Listen to your instincts. If something feels wrong, it is wrong.


Don’t allow people to cloud your judgement or question your values and beliefs.

Don’t spend your time worrying over people or incidents that you have no control over. Step back, re-evaluate, then leave those negative thoughts and feelings. Don’t dwell or overwork yourself to prove you are enough. You are already enough!


2. Log everything.

Keep a record of all incidents, times and places. If there were any witnesses. Build a picture.


3. Speak to your union.

Always liaise with your union. Yes there are times they don’t help but there are times that they do. And their help can be invaluable. Don’t do this alone.


4. Take paid sick leave.

Find out what you are entitled to. Go to your Dr and get signed off. Take that time to relax, refocus and rejuvenate. Decide if you want to return, seek employment elsewhere or leave the profession.


5. Leave.

Don’t just leave but LEAVE & THRIVE. Take some time; relax, refocus, rejuvenate then thrive!


6. Counselling.

Seek external support which will help you develop coping strategies. It’s important to be heard and to have the safe space to openly talk about your experience.


7. Talk about your experiences:

Find other colleagues who understand and can empathise. Facebook groups and Twitter are fantastic places for this. But do be careful and never mention your actual school.


8. Start a Teaching Wellbeing club.

Fish and Chips Friday. End the week on a positive note and give yourself and your colleagues something to look forward to. Some schools use Friday lunch to feast, everyone in the department brings a plate and they all make a point of sitting together and enjoying lunch.


Buddy boxes, fill a small box with some goodies. It can be chocolates, it can be stationary, it can be anything that will be appreciated by the recipient. Let the buddy box catch on and everyone gets one at some point in the term.


Shout outs to staff. I worked in a school where this was hugely popular. Small thank you notes and then a few laughs along the way. The Principal became the butt of many jokes but took it in good humour and it was something we all looked forward to.


Teacher appreciation day. When someone has a bad day, show them you care. A card signed by a few members of staff. Maybe a bottle of wine or box of chocolates. Knowing there are people there to support you goes a long way.


Wellbeing walks. Purposely leave the school grounds during the day. Walk the shop at lunch. Or during the weekend or holidays get together with a few people and go explore. Exercise is great for mental health.

10 SLT Strategies


I know this post is aimed at Toxic schools but that’s not to say all leadership in schools are toxic too. The suggested SLT strategies do need to come from a genuine place of wanting to help support staff. I’ve seen tick box exercises and in those instances it just doesn’t work.


1. Timetable:

Design a timetable that has evenly spread PPA time. What’s the point in a free lesson on a Monday and the next PPA the following Monday?


2. Duties:

No break time duty if you have a full day.


3. Classrooms:

Teaching in the same classroom. Nothing worse than running around the school.


4. Work/Life Balance:

No requirement to check emails after 5pm or at weekends.


5. Challenging classes:

Are evenly distributed across the department. With Heads of Department also taking bottom sets. No cherry-picking top sets or small classes.


6. Meet the needs of your staff:

Listen to them. Hear what they are asking for. Personalise staff development.


7. Signposting to support services:

Whether that is to actual organisations or mobile apps.


8. Free food:

Who doesn’t love free food? Every now and again, show your appreciation. You may be concerned about the cost but if it’s going to reduce staff absence then it’s money well spent.


9. Breaktime:

Tea and coffee available at break time. Have someone make hot drinks for staff.


10. Offer real support:

Cover a duty for someone. Come into class ten minutes before lunch and say you will dismiss the class and they can have an early start to lunch. If staff need to make a call or go the toilet, say no worries and cover their class for ten minutes. If someone is upset, don’t make them go into class and get on with teaching, cover their lesson and go make them a cup of tea.


Feeling Alone

12th August 2020

Feeling alone can happen to anybody. It can happen anywhere. It can happen at any time. Even when you are surrounded by people or you have hundreds of social media friends, you can still feel lonely.


Top 10 tips to combat loneliness:

1. Small talk. Send a text to a friend. Say hi to someone.

2. Mix with people who share similar interests.

3. Exercise. Join a class, go the gym, send an email to enquire about a club you have seen online.

4. Interact with people online. Avoid the trolls and find a post that you can actively participate in discussion with. Alternatively, find a support group or forum online.

5. Socialise. Plan at least one social activity per week.

6. Embrace having time to yourself. Take a book or some headphones and find a beautiful place to indulge.

7. Write stuff down. Whether it's a journal, diary or just notes. Get those feelings down onto paper (or a word processing doc).

8. Hang out with some non-humans. Furry pets can help reduce anxiety,

9. Volunteering. There are always lots of charities and non for profit organisations that need help.

10. Seek support. Find a therapist or visit your GP and be supported through your feelings of loneliness.


#mentalhealth #mentalhealthawareness #wellbeing #therapy #therapist #support #loneliness #lonely

But you look ok...

1 july 2020

Looks can be deceiving.


You may look fine but you can still feel irritable, short tempered, angry, sad, tearful, unwell, overwhelmed and/or numb.


You may be experiencing dizziness, nausea, suffering from headaches and/or insomnia. Your body will be telling you that you're not ok.

Go get some support.


#mentalhealth #mentalhealthawareness #mentalhealthadvocate #mentalhealthsupport #mentalwellbeing #mentalhealthprofessionals #mensmentalhealth #womensmentalhealth #wellbeing #wellbeingmatters #wellbeingcoach #wellbeingathome