Toxic School Cultures: 5 Tips to Gain Clarity and Make Impact

Toxic school cultures undermine improvement and kill motivation to learn (for students, staff, and leadership teams). What if there was a simple way to prevent toxicity in school cultures and build a culture around learning and genuine empathy?

There is.

In this post, I’d like to share insights from a recent conversation I had with an educational consultant and help you with 5 tips you can use this week to build a powerful school culture and prevent a toxic school culture. If you continue reading you will see:

  • 50-second video conversation about understanding toxic school cultures.
  • 5 insanely actionable tips you can use this week.
  • Free resources to share with your leadership team.

Clarity and Toxic School Culture

[Transcription, Listen to the Full Podcast]

“When schools aren’t clear about their purpose we start to see toxicity build. Do we do a gradual shifting? I don’t think so. I think you do it big and bold, so teachers can really know what this is about.

When you aren’t clear about your purpose, when don’t clarify what you’re trying to shape in the school culture, you can feel the anxiety increase because they’re not sure what’s really happening. There’s suspicion increasing. There’s distrust.

But when you make it crystal clear this is where the school is going, this is who we’re going to be, this is my style, this is what I’ve done in the past, this is my people I’m bringing in, it’s going to be big, and we can do it, and it’s going to be awesome for kids.”


5 Tips to Prevent Toxic School Cultures

1. Understand Resistance

What looks like resistance or defiance often is simply a lack of clarity. Understand the resistance and you’ll know what’s unclear. To do this, start these simple habits:

  • Use two-minute meetings to garner questions. Tell your team in the meeting what’s happening and what the forecast is for the coming 2-3 weeks. Then gather their questions. Gather, but don’t answer.
  • Follow-up. After gathering questions think about the patterns. What are the questions, and what are they really asking?  This is where the resistance hides. Now, write, talk, meet, chat about these questions for the next few days. Bring clarity to questions, and you’ll avoid unnecessary resistance.

2. Solve Situations, Solve People Problems

Often what looks like people problems actually is a problem with the context or situation. Conflicts arise from confusion regarding context. Here are some situational problems that cause people problems:

  • Who’s in charge?
  • How am I judged?
  • How is my success really measured here?
  • Who’s responsible for this?
  • When will we report back?
  • How will we follow-up?
  • How, when, or should I give my honest feedback?

Clarify these situations and your people conflicts will minimize. This tip is simple. At the outset of each month, each grading period, each project your teacher teams initiate, communicate the answers to the questions above.

What appears as a people problem is often just a situation problem. Fix the situation, fix the problem. #edleadership

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3. Create Opportunities for Involvement

Don’t get great ideas and attempt to sell them. Buy-in is often perceived as manipulation, and that’s a recipe for a toxic school culture. Instead, delegate by asking yourself:

  • Who can do this at least 80% as good as me?
  • Who’s resume would benefit from being in charge of this?
  • Who has skills in this area?
  • Who would like to sit with me as I do this (mentee)?
  • Who has strong opinions about this?
  • Who have I not heard from in a while?

There’s a difference between buy-in and involvement. One is sales, the other is leadership. Create opportunities for involvement. #edleadership

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4. Emotions Outweigh Rationality

This means you must start with your people’s emotions. Where are they passionate? What excites them? What’s their why?

Remember, recent research revealed that teachers fake their emotions roughly a third of the time!

Work your strategies around that, then lift them to a different level, a higher purpose, a deeper commitment. Use situational awareness to understand your people’s context and create a culture that inspires. Tap into their emotions for improvement efforts by:

  • Clarifying Emotional Image: “It’s okay not to be 560% bubbly excited every day.” Really, the amount of emotional labor needed to keep up the image of excitement is exhausting and actually leads to toxicity and burnout.
  • Minimize dissatisfiers: Be obsessive about finding those things that really have no impact on learning and make them easier or get rid of them!
  • Use humor, like the outstanding leaders in this study.
Leadership Actions that have Impact on Student Learning
Emotional IQ is an aspect of Situational Awareness

5. Forecast Consistently

If emotions outweigh thinking (i.e. I want ice cream vs. I want to slim down), then it’s the job of principals and school leaders to help the organization think into the future – to envision the needed improvements.

This is partially accomplished through forecasting. Clarify for the school, for teams, and individual teacher and parents the future. What will we be doing next week? What will the school feel like next month? What will success look like 6 months down the road?

Forecasting does the future thinking for the school (in a small sense).

The key here is to do it consistently. Every chance you have to embed a little forecasting is a stroke you get to add to the school culture. It’s an artistic stroke to shape a stronger school culture.

Dig Deeper Into Toxic School Culture

Now that I’ve share 5 strategies for crafting healthy school culture, let’s dig deeper into what makes a toxic school culture.

What is School Culture?

Teachers in a Healthy School Culture

Teachers in a Toxic School Culture

What is a Toxic School Culture?

Making Change

Signs of a Toxic School Culture

Free Resources for School Culture

I hope you found the five tips to be helpful in preventing toxic school culture.

I’d like to share more tips with you via my daily blog. It’s quick to read and arrives in your inbox 3 days per week. Sign up for the daily blog by clicking the button below.

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Now it’s your turn. What are your thoughts? What works for you? What questions do you have? Do you agree with any of the tips above? I’d love to hear.

Submit your thoughts, and I’ll discuss them in an upcoming episode of the podcast.

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One response to “Toxic School Cultures: 5 Tips to Gain Clarity and Make Impact”

  1. […] people will feel connected. Your vision will be communicated with clarity. You’ll be able to listen more. A win for […]