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Surviving a Toxic School Environment

Photo of business woman angrily tossing papers in the air.

A teacher can learn some of their best skills in the most difficult circumstances.

It's unfortunate that while many teachers work in positive schools with helpful colleagues and administrators, others deal with poor leadership, a lack of funding, and draconian rules that create a toxic school environment.

What's a teacher to do? There are ways to cope, and teachers can even learn a great deal from working in a difficult environment. Here are a few tips that can help.

Focus on Self-Improvement

In my 26-year career as an educator, I've faced a few toxic school environments. During those times, I focused on activities and experiences outside of my school that would help me grow as a teacher. I earned my National Board Teaching Certification, for example, which opened professional doors that led to career-building opportunities. I took part in the Teacher Leadership Initiative, a joint endeavor by the National Education Association, the Center for Teaching Quality, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards created to develop a new generation of teacher leaders. I joined my local College Board Regional Council, where I worked with college admissions officers, professors, and guidance counselors to ensure equity and access for high school students.

Further Reading: 9 Ways to Build Strong Teacher Relationships with Colleagues

If you're in a toxic situation, check with your local union or association to see what professional development opportunities are on offer.

Vent Safely and Effectively

Venting can help—but only if it doesn't get out of hand. Psych Central notes that venting can provide catharsis, connection, and insight. It can also help teachers realize that sometimes harsh realities are outside their control and that it's OK to acknowledge less-than-perfect experiences. My school, for example, might never have the resources of wealthier schools, which can lead to a lack of opportunities and a shortage of resources for students. By expressing my concerns to my trusted colleagues, I've come to accept that, and I've also come to appreciate my school's positives, such as its multicultural atmosphere, which many schools never experience.

If you're feeling frustrated, let down, or angered by your school, your administrators, or your students' parents, vent to a trusted colleague or friend. Sometimes they can provide some much-needed perspective.

Stay Positive

Negativity is contagious, so focus on the positive as much as possible. There are at least seven scientifically proven benefits of gratitude, Psychology Today observes, noting that it can improve physical and mental health, self-esteem, and mental strength. Even in a hostile school environment, there are good things going on: student achievement, collegial relationships with colleagues, classroom successes. Focus on those and avoid the constant negative grind. Avoid areas where gossiping and kvetching can get out of hand.

Practice Self-Care

Forbes writes that it's "imperative that you learn to separate the negativity you are swimming in daily from the reality of who you truly are." Staying in a toxic environment for a long time can wear people down, but finding ways to remind ourselves that we aren't a reflection of our current surroundings can make a difference. Journaling, connecting with the outdoors in short walks, eating healthy foods, rather than loading up on sugar and caffeine, can help lift your mood.

Learn from the Experience

I've learned a great deal about working in toxic work environments in my career in teaching and in the private sector—especially about the qualities that make a good leader. I've learned that it's important to be flexible. I've recognized how important it is to show respect to people, even if you disagree with them. Most importantly, I've learned how to listen.

Today, I use those lessons in and out of the classroom. If you're stuck in a toxic work environment, try to find the lessons in the challenges and apply them to your work.

Work Toward Change

If your school environment is toxic, talk to your union representatives. They can help. When leadership became difficult to work with at my friend Abbey's school, she ran for office and became vice president of her union. She was able to help keep her school administrators in check.

When my school was decimated by budget cuts, I wrote a grant to help fund our school's book club, rock 'n' roll ensemble, and culture club so that my students would still be able to have those experiences. I used DonorsChoose to get books and classroom supplies and to fund field trips. I asked for free or discounted tickets to the theater.

There might be similar opportunities to ameliorate difficult situations at your school or with your union. If you're in a position to create change, do it.

Find a New Position...

No one should put up with a situation so hostile it affects their health and well-being. No one should tolerate an abusive situation. If you're able, look for a new position at a new school. Network with friends, former colleagues, and professors. Talk to teachers at different schools to see how they feel about their work environments to ensure that you're applying to a healthier school.

...Or Ride It Out

Nothing is permanent. Administrators move on. Funding formulas change. Rules are updated. Usually, if you hang on long enough, you'll outlast toxic people and environments, and you'll be older and wiser about what makes a school work.

Further Reading: Survive the Gossip Target on Your Back

Coping in a toxic school environment can be tough, but it doesn't have to be all-consuming. Veteran teachers know that student successes and classroom joy can outweigh poor funding or overzealous administrators. With these strategies, you can make the best of your work environment.