Fake Headteacher: Newsletter No.26 – Toxic Schools

Dear Staff,

Thank you so much for all of your hard work and the sacrifices you’ve made this term. Sadly, we say goodbye to another group of teachers. I am not allowed to discuss with you why they are leaving as they have signed whistle blowing contracts. However, I wish them well.

With so much attention on social media about ‘toxic schools’ I thought I might address this with you all to ease your mind. Some of you may not have worked in a toxic school before and want to know more. Some of you may have already experienced it and just want some more information. Some of you may feel our school is toxic. You’re entitled to your opinion I suppose.

Stage 1: Confidence
It’s important to remember that teachers who have experienced working in toxic schools were once very confident. They had successful teaching placements and probably worked in other schools where they were valued. This is why they find it hard to adjust when faced with the issues toxic schools present. Nearly all teachers who struggle adapting in toxic schools were once very confident in the classroom. Remember that.

Stage 2: Shock
This is arguably the hardest part of the process. Suddenly, you are given lists of non-negotiables and subjected to increased lesson obeservations (disguised as learning walks). Book scrutiny and display board checks are carried out all the time and pupil progress interrogations become more frequent.

Teachers’ pay is often frozen and UPS staff start to feel the heat because the school can’t afford to keep them. Support plans are dished out frequenty and the toxicity begins to creep in. Teachers begin to moan to family and friends and the spiral of negativity accelerates. Good teachers are told they are not good anymore. Nothing is good enough.

Stage 3: Defiance
Some teachers will resist the changes for a while. They will speak up in staff meetings and start up secret social media chat rooms in order to let off steam. One brave teacher will speak up a little too much and experience the wrath of the management team.

Once staff realise that the consequences for wanting to debate issues that are affecting their wellbeing and workload, they think twice. Defiance doesn’t last long. Teachers panic and mentally hide, and then move onto Stage 4.

Stage 4: Tolerance
This is where the real damage is done I’m afraid. The workload and accountability pressures by this point are in full swing and teachers know they can’t fight back. Most are too worried to contact their unions and those who do, don’t have the confidence the union will help them, so they give up. Staff now accept the school has changed and make a conscious decision (for the own sanity, professionalism and their personal relationships outside of school) to knuckle down and make the best of a crap situation.

The problem with this, is that it eats away at your job satisfaction. Your confidence begins to wane and you start resenting your job. You might even start to hate your job. It’s clear that some staff members are being targeted. Who will be next? But you keep going because you that’s what you are good at. You haven’t failed at anything really before. Teachers naturally want to do well. It’s part of their work ethic.

Stage 5: Exhaustion
Sadly, after months of tolerating the new regime and trying to tick all the boxes that have been thrust at staff, teachers begin to feel exhausted. Not just ‘teacher tired’. I mean absolutely mentally and physically exhausted. The problem is, they’ve given up seeing friends, they’ve stopped going to the gym, they’re drinking more, they’re staying up late trying to keep up with the demands of the job, and relationships at home start to wobble.

They can’t think straight anymore. They have lost their mojo and find it hard to know what the best course of action is to take. The only thing they do know, is they must keep up at school otherwise they will be given another support plan and they don’t need that. Once everything starts affect their sleep, Stage 6 kicks in.

Stage 6: Stress
Your partner starts to worry about you. Your friends would say something but you haven’t seen them for months. After weeks of not sleeping properly, teachers find themselves on the brink of a breakdown – only they don’t know what this feels like so don’t recognise it for what it is. They will eventually, but by then, it’s too late.

If nothing changes at school soon teachers slowly become more and more stressed, to a point where they might suddenly break down without warning. They will feel confused and scared. This has never happened to them before. They will start to cry and won’t understand why they can’t get to work.

They will still tell people they are fine because they don’t really know what to say. Some teachers will seek advice immediately form the doctor and will inevitably burst into tears in front of them. The doctor will sign them off for two weeks.

In some cases, this is enough for a teacher to realise that they need to leave their school and do so the following term. Others however will struggle. The damage has been done and it’s hard to come back from that. They may have longer periods off with depression and anxiety. They may never come back to teaching or go on supply for a while. Others stay for a few more years. They just about cope but they are extremely miserable.

Stage 7: Guilt
Stage 6 is tough. Really tough. There are so many decisions teachers have to make. Not just for themselves but for their family too. One of the immediate emotions experienced by teachers, after going through this whole process, is guilt and sadness. You feel bad because you have (wrongly) labelled yourself as a failure. You can’t cope with the job you always wanted to do. You’ve let the pupils down. You’ve let your colleagues down. Your finances are taking a hit.

Teachers start to feel bad about everything. They forget it wasn’t their fault. It’s really not – remember Stage 1? Your emotions overpower you. Teachers find it hard to think about anything else now. It has consumed them. It’s emotionally draining. You can’t see a positive future. Not yet anyway.

Stage 8: Relief
Stage 8 is a strange one. How could you possibly feel relieved after everything you’ve been through? But it’s true. As horrid an experience as it was, teachers soon begin to realise how toxic the school was. They start to feel relieved they don’t work there anymore. They start to worry for staff still there and keep in touch with them all the time. They start to advise other teachers to get out before they are forced out. You start to get a little perspective on the whole matter.

You begin to realise that you were bullied, or forced out, or your anxiety was a serious issue and you had to come to terms with it (and that’s ok). You start to feel better. Honestly, you do. You feel relieved. But…

2017-19 Full blogs are now archived in the book ‘How Do You Think the Lesson Went?’

24 thoughts on “Fake Headteacher: Newsletter No.26 – Toxic Schools

  1. Wow. You have just written my life a few years ago. Astonishingly accurate. I’m commenting because of (8) Relief and (9) Anger: I don’t want anyone else who started out a confident, respected, passionate teacher to feel the utter failure, despair and worthlessness I ended up feeling. There IS a different, better school out there for you. You are NOT a failure. Keep that passion and hold your head high.


  2. This was me in 2017-2018, I put up with this for 1 year but I still carry so much of it still. I found a new school , it was hard I trusted no one. It took until now for me to raise my head and begin to enjoy teaching. I am not a young teacher I had 10 years experience before. I still worry about those I left behind. I thought I was loosing my mind. Thank you for illustrating this.


  3. Another comment from someone who has gone through exactly this. This was me in 2017-18. I started a new school as a RQT and within 5 weeks a close relative passed away suddenly. The day after, I was put on a support plan and observed hourly x3 a week. Feedback was given via email every Sunday afternoon saying ‘inadequate’. I left at Christmas but that term still sticks with me and my confidence was ruined. I was diagnosed with PTSD and I’m only just getting over it 2 years later due to eventually finding the right school. I still keep in touch with staff there and they’ve had another 14 staff leave since.


  4. Took me 4 weeks to crack… and now going through the relief of finding a job without the word teaching in the title… the money is not good.. min wage+ I get feedback of the posotive type on observed daily by my colleagues and managers I get feedback I smile I learn I love it I just miss some things… like the first word read the last goodbyes and the thank you from them all however guarded… the art the knowledge but at the moment I cant go back…


  5. Absolutely spot on. The only thing I’d add is in stage 6 – where having been signed off for three weeks with stress you return to school and the ‘return to work meeting’ consists of telling you how incredibly inconvenient it’s been being off school and that it’s put extra pressure on your year group colleagues. True story. This is my experience in a school. Luckily I left before the catatonic breakdown that I could feel was round the corner. My husband wasn’t so lucky. He’s now left a profession he loved because of the toxic environment at his school. Heartbreaking experiences for both of us.
    I’m glad to say however that I’ve now changed to a different school and I’ve got my mojo back. I feel valued, trusted and respected and I’m always happy to be going to work in the mornings. If only every school was like that.


  6. This could be my story…. but I have been at the angry stage for a very long time. I finally reached the stage this Autumn where I developed neurological problems, suffered nightmares and sleep problems, couldn’t string a sentence together and couldn’t follow a train of thought. I have just left and don’t feel like I ever want to go back to the teaching profession again -a profession I once loved and was very proud to be part of. I left after 17 years with barely a farewell (a farewell card was passed to me as I keft the building) which only added to the feeling of worthlessness which had developed insidiously over several years. I never want to experience it again. I leave to go self employed. I may end up very poorly off but no amount of money is worth the way I felt.


  7. I’m not a teacher but have many friends who are teachers (no, I don’t see them often) and one of them shared this on Facebook. I see the signs of them going through this, and strongly suspect that my daughter’s school is one of those toxic schools. Is there anything that we, as parents, can do to start to change this, both for the sake of the students and the staff?


  8. Thanks for this. I am at stage 7 and have left my job. I’m struggling to find any positives to hold on to and feel like there is no type of job that I am capable of nor do I think I would get a supportive reference from my previous boss.
    I am on a waiting list for counselling.
    I need some pointers to get away from these destructive thoughts. Any ideas?


  9. I escaped from a toxic FE college four years ago, with almost exactly the same stages. You do not realise at the time that you are spiralling downwards. Eventually I managed to get another non-teaching job and handed in my notice. Toxic manager suggested that I stayed until the end of the term “think of the students”. I replied that I was more concerned about my own children and family and them being disadvantaged. Best wishes and good luck to all.


  10. Sadly I am living this right now. I was the brave teacher in stage 3 which landed me on an ‘improving practice plan’. I have just finished stage 4 by working ridiculous hours completing said plan (over 70 in the last week alone) and am currently crawling to half term in stage 5/6 wondering whether it’s worth it any more. I am utterly heartbroken about how toxic my school has become since we joined an academy which is supposed to promote Christian values. I wish staff work/life balance and wellbeing mattered. I wish I mattered.


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