6 Early Warning Signs of a Toxic School Culture
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You're listening to School Leadership Reimagined, episode number 181.
Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...
where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson.
Hello there, and welcome back to another episode of School Leadership Reimagined. I'm your host Robyn Jackson, And today is a rewind episode.
You see, I've been hearing a lot from people around challenges that they're having with their school cultures this year, either because people are satisfied with the status quo, or people are, you know, getting snarky with each other in meetings, or there's a general sense of overwhelm in the culture. And so we are working on some really good resources for you around culture that we're going to be releasing in the next several weeks. But as I was going through some of the resources we had, I remembered this episode. It's one of the earliest episodes we did in the podcast. And it's really good because it talks about some early warning signs of a toxic school culture, that I think still ring true, even today.
So I wanted to share this episode with you again, in case you missed it the first time and even if you heard it, it's a good reminder about the power of culture. And then I want you to look out in the next couple of weeks as we're going to be sharing several other resources around healing your school culture, building a healthy school culture for your school. So enjoy the episode, and I'll see you again next week.
One of my favorite quotes is a quote by Peter Drucker
and he says that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Now, what do you mean by that? Is that a toxic culture can completely derail any change efforts that you want to make. So it's really, really important to detect and deal with any sign of toxicity before you begin your change efforts. Otherwise, that toxic culture will completely destroy any efforts that you make to secure real change in your school. I mean, you've seen this before, right? You announced a new initiative and the staff meeting and everybody acts like they're on board only to a sabotage the initiative down the line or maybe you've been working with the teacher and sharing feedback and resources and the teacher always thanks you for your support, but they don't actually make any changes in their classroom.
Or maybe you're trying to do what's right for students, but everybody in your school seem satisfied with the status quo. They they really don't get your sense of urgency or they have a sense of urgency, but they have a sense of urgency around things that don't really matter. They have a sense of urgency around things that serve adults, but not a sense of urgency around things that serve kids. So if you've ever been frustrated that you can't seem to get a new initiative off the ground or that you can't get everyone to feel a sense of real urgency, I guarantee that if you look under the hood, you're gonna find one or more of these signs, that you've got some toxicity lurking in your school culture. So before you launch into any new change effort or before you try to get your teachers on board, it's first really important to find out if you have any hidden toxicity in your culture.Otherwise, you're in for a nasty surprise down the line.
Now, before we dive into the list...
I want to talk a minute about what we mean by a toxic school culture. You see, a toxic culture is where complacency or negative attitudes, personal agendas in fighting and drama, well, they've become the default behaviors in your school and they really threaten your ability to serve others and they had threatened others ability to serve children. So I want to distinguish here between a toxic culture and toxic people. You see, toxic people are people who place their personal agendas above what's best for children and they use an ethical or mean spirited. Sometimes illegal means to manipulate others so that they can increase their power and achieves status or divert attention away from their own personal or their own professional shortcomings. They can create a lot of drama, yes, but if we have a strong culture, you can usually overcome a toxic person, but a toxic culture, well, that's where that negative behavior has become an organizational habit.
In other words, it isn't just a toxic person behaving that way. It's now the way that everybody operates within the culture. The toxicity has infected the attitudes, the belief, and the costumes of your entire school and this toxic behavior which once was something that individuals did, is now the default behavior for everybody working in your school and then coming back to new people, so even if they come in and they're really excited about working and they bring new energy after a few weeks, they have now imbibed that toxic culture and now they are behaving in ways that are very different from how they would behave in another environment. Now, here's why this is also dangerous. When bad behaviors become the norm, it derails everything good you try to accomplish in the building. People aren't even behaving badly on purpose anymore. Behavior has just become the habit. It infiltrates everything from the way that we talk about kids, to how we respond to kids, to how we respond to each other, to what we believe about kids and about our ability to help them.
So can you see how toxic culture can, can eat any leadership strategy or any leadership initiative that you might be using right now or trying to get started right now? Can you see how that toxic culture can just eat that for breakfast? Now, if you don't want your change efforts to become a casualty of toxicity, then the first step is to detect these early warning signals of toxicity lurking in your school's culture so that you can nip them in the bud before they have a chance to really infiltrate your culture. OK?
Without further ado, here are the six early warning signs that your school culture is turning toxic early warning sign.
there is an absence of risk taking. When I say absence of risk taking, what I mean by that is that everyone, including you, are free to take even prudent risk, so innovation is often really rare or it's half hearted and people learn kind of content with the status quo.
Sometimes you have younger teachers who come into your building and they're criticized for trying to change everything or they're patronized for their ideas and no one takes their ideas really seriously because everybody's comfortable. You've been doing the same thing the same way for as long as you can remember. And then what will also happen is that people will start policing innovation, they'll subtly discourage others from trying something new and it usually, it's not outright discouragement. It comes across as well, we tried that before or that might work where you came from, but it's not going to work here, and then people give you a rationalization for why it may not work. Another way that you can see this early warning signal of toxicity is that sometimes your school is fairly successful and maybe success may do a little cautious or are you more worried about trying to preserve what you have rather than taking the risk to make it better.
So in that scenario, a lot of times people have so much affection for the past, for the way that things used to be that it keeps them from really getting excited about the future. They stop seeing possibilities and they think that they have reached a really comfortable, satisfying level and there's no reason to continue to innovate and continue to try to get better. Now, this often leads to people who stop learning because they think that they're doing the best that they can and they really stop seeking out new ideas. People don't understand that the culture outside of school is changing and the gap between what's happening inside of school and what's happening in the rest of the world is getting wider and wider and wider, and so what they do is they create this cocoon around themselves and they start protecting themselves from the outside and they stop being very open to new ideas.
In fact, they become very cautious about those new ideas. Now, when you see people shrinking from taking risk or making excuses about why they can't take risks or doing things to preserve the status quo, then it's a sure sign that your culture is heading for toxicity. If you don't deal with this now, over time, people will become so entrenched in their way of doing things that they're going to resist change. They're gonna undermine every new initiative and they're going to stay stuck in the past instead of moving forward to the future. So it's really important that you nip this one in the bud.
Early warning signal number two...
rules are more important than people. Our mission of this usually happens when teachers feel that they have very little latitude to do their jobs. They believe that that if they don't follow the curriculum pacing guide, for instance, or if they don't use the approved format for lesson plans, that they're going to get into some kind of trouble.
So what happens is they start focusing on checking off boxes and they lose sight of why they're there in the first place and how they can best serve students. You'll also see this early warning sign when people are more focused on maintenance the mission, that means that they've lost sight as to why they're there to begin with and and they make or they enforce rules that no longer make any kind of sense and they never questioned why they're doing something. They just do it because it's the rule. Now, this early warning sign can also come up when people are more concerned with maintaining and enforcing rules than they are with helping kids or they punish students rather than discipline them to help students learn how to make better decisions in the future and may get mad at you for not doing the same thing or for not punishing students enough.
So if you go in and say, well, let's try restorative justice, or let's do some other things to really get these kids really integrated into school. They get mad at you for not punishing them and we focus on the punishment rather than focusing on rehabilitating kids and helping them learn from their mistakes. And finally, you see this early warning sign when there's a sense of urgency. Yes, but it's a sense of urgency about the wrong things. Usually that pertains to the adults comfort more than students need, and if we don't deal with this early warning signal, soon over time, people will get so focused on the rules that they will totally lose sight of the mission and the purpose that your school was built on. And soon you're going to hear things like, they don't pay me to do that, or we get a bonus if we do that, and people will start making decisions about serving kids based on the status quo, the rules and the rules will become more important than the students and the work that we're meant to be doing.
So what will happen is that our work will get buried under policy and rules and regulations will begin to trump relationships. So you need to tease this one out early on so that people can stay open and focused on the mission rather than on maintaining the status quo. OK, so now let's move on to
Early warning signal number three...
where there is an absence of honest dialogue. Now notice I didn't say that there is an absence of dialogue. I'm focused particularly on the absence of honest dialogue. And that's where difficult conversations are avoided because no one wants to hurt anybody else's feelings or no one wants to feel uncomfortable themselves by saying something that may be true, but maybe a little uncomfortable. And this usually happens when teachers are not getting consistent feedback when they're teaching, so the teacher begins to feel unsure about what they should be working on or how they're doing, and it can also happen when teachers don't feel comfortable giving you honest feedback about how they're doing or what they may need or whether they're struggling or whether they need more support.
The problem with the absence of honest dialogue is that when you don't talk about things openly and freely, problems are allowed to fester rather than being dealt with immediately and then soon you're not just not having open and honest dialogue. That's when the passive aggressive comments start sneaking in and that's when people start saying one thing publicly, but during another thing privately. So a teacher may sit in a post observation conference with you and act as if they agree with all of your feedback and then go back into the classroom and not make any changes. You can also see this early warning sign crop up when ever anyone in your school starts to deal with conflict by talking about people rather than talking to people. So at any point where people are not dealing with problems where they are either getting passive aggressive or they're avoiding conversations altogether, or instead of talking about the problem, they talk about the person, that's when you start to see these early warning signals that you're headed towards toxicity and if an absence of honest dialogue is allowed to continue, sooner or later, communication is going to totally break down.
And once that happens, there's a lot of infighting and arguments and feuds and all our wars and people begin to lie and hide and avoid dealing with things and trust and safety is destroyed. So it's really important to create open and honest dialogue before the lack of communication destroys your culture. All right, so now we're gonna move on to
Early warning signal number four...
And this one is that the back channel is more active and more effective than formal lines of communication. So this happens when a small minority dominate your school-wide discourse and other voices go unheard. So we've all been in those staff meetings where one or two vocal people speak up about a topic and everybody else remains quiet. Even though we know that there are other people there who have a different opinion, they just don't feel like they need to be able to say it.
In the forum of a staff meeting, those conversations started happening in little sidebar conversations, so they started happening outside of the staff meeting and when that happens, there's this real lack of transparency about what gets set in public and it's very different than what gets said behind closed doors and then soon if you don't deal with this rumor starts to dominate and they seem to have more truth than the official communication. So people believe the grapevine more than they believe. Your official email, your official memo and instead of dealing with disagreement, people began to wage what I called proxy wars. That distract from the real issues. So people fight about one thing, but that thing they're fighting about really serves as a proxy for what they're really mad about. And so people aren't being upfront and honest because they are relying on that back channel rather than using the right channels to be able to communicate with the powers that be.
So when the bath channel is allowed to grow and become the main way that people communicate in your organization, what happens is it can completely sabotage your efforts to move your school forward and that's because you lose control over the narrative and when you lose control over the narrative, other people can substitute their agendas, their interpretations, their vision for yours. So you need to get that back channel under control early on before it has a chance to take over the narrative and derail your ability to move your school forward.
Alright, early warning signal number five...
There's more self preservation and collaboration. In other words, teachers are so looking out for themselves that they don't support each other. It's every man or every woman for him or herself. And that can happen when people start making decisions based on who is in and who is out, who, who has perceived power and who is a powerless and it can also happen.
Or you can also see this crop up when you have to play politics in order to get anything done or there's this entrenched us versus them mentality. So people start taking sides and then what happens is that conflict starts to become personal rather than philosophical and people stopped sharing solutions. All they do is complain about problems or you'll see this happening when people go into their classrooms and they closed the door and they teach, but they never come out of those classrooms and share their resources or their successes with other people and people stop seeking help from other people too and they just go it alone. And so you'll often see this in schools where there are pockets of excellence, but excellence is not pervasive and that's because people aren't collaborating. People are so worried about preserving themselves that they're not supporting each other. You'll also see this when you have really unproductive team meetings or no team meetings at all.
Some people again are not collaborating and then the mother signs students and their families, they get subtly blamed for lack of progress because people don't want to take ownership and responsibility for themselves. So they put that on the students and their families and they may not do it in a mean way or vicious way. So that's why this one's so hard to detect. Sometimes they do it under the guise of just, you know, stating the facts. I call it holding soft stereotypes or that poor baby mentality. When they say these poor babies, they come from such poverty or they come from broken homes. It's no wonder that our test scores aren't higher. What people are doing is they're putting the blame on the kids rather than taking ownership and responsibility and that comes out of a desire to preserve cell rather than deal with problems rather than confront things coming forward.
So when people start looking out for themselves more than they support each other, no one's taking full responsibility for the success or the failure of your school. Instead you have a lot of blame and shame and judgment and what's more. People start forming cliques and they become even more entrenched in what matters to them as opposed to what will help your school move forward. There on agenda takes precedence and some people are grabbing for power and doing what they can to preserve their own status or worse had their own competence rather than learn and grow. And do the things that they need to do to move your school forward. So the key to detect this attitude early, the first sign of self preservation, you need to nip it in the bud right away and you need to create collaboration and support structures and have those in place so that people become accustomed to sharing resources to collaborating on the best course of action and to supporting each other towards the greater goals for your school.
Alright, last early warning signal...
This is early warning signal number six. This one is that punishment is emphasized over recognition and rewards. So in this scenario, most people's behavior is mostly motivated by the avoidance of punishment. So people are doing or not doing things because they're scared that there'll be some retribution. And in this situation there's a palpable lack of safety because people are afraid to speak up for fear that if they do, they're going to be punished by you or they're going to be punished by their colleagues. And if, uh, if this also can manifest itself. And I've seen this a lot in schools where if a few people mess up, everybody gets punished. So you have one or two teachers who are coming in consistently late and the whole staff gets reamed out about how it's so important to be on time at the next staff meeting when really you're only dealing with one or two people who are violating the rule.
And the other way this manifests itself is that sometimes are rules about how people behave in school are designed for the teachers who are not doing their jobs rather than the teachers who are doing their jobs. So let me give you a for instance, sometimes you know, you have some teachers who are not planning. And so instead of dealing with those teachers, we institute these rules. Let's say teachers have to turn in lesson plans every Friday by 2:00 when the majority of teachers are planning and they are staying ahead of the game and you just have a few teachers who are not planning. So instead of dealing with those teachers, we make a school-wide rule. And so people start to worry about getting punished rather than being recognized for the work that they're doing. The other way that this happens is that sometimes cultures have very few ceremonies or traditions to celebrate what's working, what's good in the school.
Instead we sit around and we tell each other stories about our school that have a negative tone or that are discouraging or worse, demoralizing or not speaking enough about what's great and what's good that's happening in our schools and instead we're complaining about all the things that aren't working and that starts from the head and trickles all the way down to the staff. So when people are focused on avoiding punishment, they don't do their best work. So if you don't deal with this early warning signal early on, some people are going to be hiding their challenges for fear that they're going to be punished, instead of being open to feedback or seeking out support and ultimately growing.
What's more, a spirit of negativity will will start to take over entire school and it will not only infect your teachers, it will infect your parents and your students, and soon your entire school climate will suffer and there'll be this sense of hopelessness and despair, but if you can get everyone focused on the good that currently exist in your school, do recognition through celebrating your successes. You can really hard wire hopelessness into your culture and then you can help teachers truly believe that they can and are making a difference in the lives of the students that you serve.
So just to recap...
the six early warning signs that your school culture is turning toxic. They are number one, there is an absence of risk taking. Number two, rules are more important than people are. Mission number three, there's an absence of honest dialogue. Difficult conversations are avoided. Number four, there's more self preservation than collaboration. Number five, the back channel is more active and more effective than the formal lines of communication. And number six, punishment. It's emphasized over recognition and reward. So that means that most behavior is motivated by the avoidance of punishment. Now, here's taking notice of these early warning signals is so important. If you ignore them and you allow them to fester, they're going to infect to your school culture and turn things toxic very, very quickly. That's the bad news.
Now, the good news is...
If you get to them early, you can overcome these toxic elements before they permeate your entire school culture, and that's what builders do. Builders don't wait for things to get toxic before they intervene. Builders are constantly on the lookout for signs of toxicity and they deal with it quickly before it has a chance to get any worse, and that way they never have to worry about a toxic culture to revealing their efforts to build better schools. So now it's your turn. Take a moment to test your school. Do you see any of these early warning signals of toxicity currently in place in your school culture, or worse? Do you see more than one of these signs in your school culture? Take time this week to spot any of these six early warning signals. Now, so you can nip them in the bud early on and avoid having to face the much more dramatic consequences later on and to help you do that, I've got a tool for you.
Just go to School Leadership Reimagined.com/episode seven to download this week's Freebie, six early warning signs your school culture is turning toxic. It's a checklist to help you detect whether you've got some early forms of toxicity lurking around your school culture, and once you spot it, you can deal with it and eradicate it before it has a chance to ruin everything that you're trying to build. Again, you can get your Freebie by going to School Leadership Reimagined, or if you aren't in front of a computer right now, you can just text the word episode seven, no space episodes seven to the number three, three, four, four, four. And if you found today's episode useful, go ahead and subscribe to the podcast so that you won't miss next week's episode where I'll show you exactly what you need to do to detoxify your school culture so that you can get rid of any toxicity for good. It's going to be a good one, so I will talk to you next week. That's it for today. I'll see you next time.
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