Toxic Staffrooms and The Courage To Lead

Great educators are by their nature reflective. They take time to ‘look inwards’, to reflect on their actions, their words and their impact on others. At times this can lead them to be quite ‘confessional’. However, such occasions do sometimes provide opportunities for introspection for their fellow educators.

Here’s an article from an American teacher that is almost confessional in nature, but that touches on something that too many teachers and leaders in schools all over the world have experienced – the potential toxicity of staffrooms. She also makes the valid point that it’s not limited or confined to a particular place or room, but manifests anywhere in a school where talk is overly negative, cynical or crosses the line to become gossip-laden.

Edweek – Why I Avoid The Teachers’ Lounge, And You Should Too

There are many factors that go in to making up the culture of a school. Among the most influential aspects that are all encompassed under ‘leadership’, I believe are;

a) Vision, Mission and values (V-M-V) that are clearly articulated, inspiring, exciting and it’s made clear that they are for every stakeholder in the organisation. It can be all too easy to see the articulation of V-M-V as a ‘one-off exercise’ – a quick inspiring talk to the staff at the beginning of the year and job done. V-M-V have to be made a living, dynamic part of every activity, every significant discussion and it has to be clear that they’re not a five minute wonder, but a fundamental part of the school for the longer term. It must also be very clear that they apply in all respects to all stakeholders; pupils, teachers, non-academic staff, parents and even outside vendors who support the school’s activities. They are not a menu to pick and choose from on a whim and, as adults, we have to be very clear that we are to model the values as consistently as we can for the children, holding ourselves accountable to the highest professional standards. We must walk our talk.

b) Accountability – In short, a leader can’t lack the courage or sense to lead and cannot be denied their right/ duty to do so. There can be times and occasions which are hard to deal with. Informal leaders can emerge who consciously or unconsciously espouse values and beliefs different to the organisation or who have bad habits (e.g. toxic gossiping) that are highly detrimental to the good of the institution. When the individual is a ‘good teacher’ in the classroom this can be especially tough. It is the leaders’ duty to guide and counsel the person, coach them, hold them accountable for the actions which are harming the organisation. Ultimately, despite the fact that they can deliver good work themselves, in the worst case scenario where they won’t or can’t change it can be right for the leaders to decide to part ways with the individual. Ultimately, permitting someone to exist in the organisation espousing or practicing incongruent values can be a worse failure of leadership than allowing someone who lacks skills or competence in their role.

When the leadership has given the individual every chance to change, there is no failure in taking ultimate responsibility. However, we need to be aware – toxic staffroom people can be popular people at a personal level, especially if they satisfy a personal need of staff members to have an outlet for negative feelings!

c) MBWA – this was a wonderful acronym I learned from the business writer, Tom Peters, many years ago. It stands for Management By Walking About. In essence, it’s simple and clear – as leaders we’ve got to put ourselves out there, even if that requires some very rigid and forceful diary management and the strength to say ‘No’ at the right times. In my view, this is probably a more critical factor in schools than in any other kind of organisation. Schools are all about people. As a leader, if we choose to allow it, there will always be more than enough people who can create situations that seem to justify us spending our entire work day in our offices. However, we must never forget that sitting in our offices we receive only the information from the outside environment that others choose to send us/ bring us or lead us towards. When it comes to ‘Teachers’ lounge’ tendencies, this can actually risk leaders becoming part of the very issue that threatens the culture of their school or department. Then, we become reliant on only the perspectives of others about people, mood and ground realities – instead of going out and really feeling things for ourselves, hearing what everyone has to say (not just those who choose to bring us information). School leaders must ensure they carve out time to see things for themselves, to hear people and genuinely listen to all stakeholders and to get their own feel for what is happening in all areas of their school.

I once joined an organisation where I discovered that there was an accepted norm/ practice that required the Principal to knock and virtually ask for permission to enter the staff room! To me this was symptomatic of some past MBWA breakdown. What could staff possibly be doing, in the staffroom, in school, that the Principal didn’t have the right to know? After a few weeks we learned a great example of what was going on in that staffroom. New teachers would get cornered by ‘old’ established teachers and mocked for their hard work, attempts to innovate and compliance with requests/ directions from the school leadership. There was a kind of mafia of cynicism in that room that plainly was not in the best interests of the school and certainly not in the interests of children and their learning. New staff were stressed and hurt by the conflicts they were experiencing between the positive and inspiring words of the school leadership and this localised negativity. Situations like this are tricky to deal with. If you confront those concerned directly they may turn against those who they believe have ‘grassed on them’. It could have left a new teacher very vulnerable. Ultimately, we were able to find out from loyal committed longer term staff that this had happened multiple times. As a result, when the individuals concerned were confronted they had no one person they could target. Some immediately distanced themselves from the problem by staying in their classrooms during free periods. Ultimately, two who might have been considered ringleaders left and went elsewhere (where word reached us that at least one was doing the same thing!)

When we step up to be leaders it shouldn’t be for money, or for status or personal prestige. It really has to be because we want to make a positive difference in the education field. Our best opportunities to do that flow out of the extent to which the ‘butterflies fly in formation’ and that comes out of both words and practice aligned to common understanding of V-M-V.

A final word for teachers – in this time of school break and the opportunity to reflect on our practice – if you think that maybe, like the writer of the article, you’ve been inadvertently sucked in to being part of staffroom issues, now is the time to commit and pledge yourself to rise above them, to strengthen your commitment to the V-M-V of your school (and I stress, I’m talking here to all teachers everywhere). We can decide to be part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.

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