School culture consists of an underlying norm of values and beliefs regarding teaching and learning that, in theory, teachers and administrators all hold. That said, a school might have a positive or negative culture, the latter of which can breed toxic teachers. Or, of course, there might just be a bad apple of a teacher among an otherwise positive school culture.
In a school with a positive culture, professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Educational Administration, co-author of Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership and researcher behind the 2002 study published in the Journal of Staff Development, "Positive or Negative," Dr. Kent D. Peterson told Education World, "There's an informal network of heroes and heroines and an informal grapevine that passes along information about what's going on in the school ... A set of values that supports professional development of teachers, a sense of responsibility for student learning, and a positive, caring atmosphere.".
In a toxic school environment, however, "teacher relations are often conflictual, the staff doesn't believe in the ability of the students to succeed, and a generally negative attitude" pervades the school halls, Dr. Peterson explained. According to Dr. Peterson, schools with a toxic culture lack a clear sense of purpose, have norms that reinforce inertia, blame students for lack of progress, discourage collaboration and often have actively hostile relations among staff.
Of course, sometimes a teacher just doesn't quite fit the mold, and their actions alone aren't in line with the school's overall mission or the needs of its students. While their negativity isn't necessarily a direct reflection of the school's toxic culture, they may just be a lone toxic teacher.
But how do you identify a toxic teacher? They're not always outright "bad" teachers. In fact, they may even be popular among some students and even other parents and the education board. Here are eight ways to spot whether or not your kid has a toxic teacher.
1. They're Disillusioned
Disillusionment is defined as "a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be." If a teacher feels disillusioned with regards to their students, that could mean that they don't believe in the ability of their students. And, of course, if they don't believe in their students, they may manifest a reality in which their students don't succeed.
2. They Gossip
A teacher who spends their time gossiping is probably a teacher who doesn't spend enough time focused on the good of their students — things like lesson planning and meeting with parents after school. The gossiper may spread rumors and talk that makes them look better, likely because they're not doing enough professionally to make themselves look good.
3. They Display an Attitude of Dissent
A toxic teacher might bring great ideas to the table when talking with parents or colleagues, but they don't necessarily welcome other great ideas. While they claim to be participatory, their input is almost always negative and ensures that next to nothing gets accomplished. Then they may blame students for the lack of progress.
4. They Only Do the Bare Minimum
Maybe a teacher is effective in the classroom and their students perform well and get good grades. On the surface, this teacher looks great. But this teacher does the bare minimum to challenge their students — that's largely because, if their students perform poorly, they don't want it to be a reflection on them. So they do the bare minimum to skate by.
5. They Don't Try to Do Better Themselves
A good teacher knows that, just as much as they're in school to teach, they're in school to learn. Effective teachers not only teach their students, but they also learn from them — they discover what teaching methods work well and what doesn't, as well as their own personal strengths and weaknesses. And when they discover methods that don't work or weaknesses that could use improvement, they strive to come up with new ideas and develop their teaching skills. They take constructive feedback well and they implement action plans. A toxic teacher, however, doesn't try to do better even though they expect their students to do just that.
6. They Degrade or Publicly Humiliate Some Students
A toxic teacher may be notorious for degrading or publicly humiliating students. They may make some students feel that they're not good enough by doing things like shaming them during a presentation or calling them out for their grades in the middle of class. They might also, consciously or subconsciously, encourage or even allow other students to exclude or make fun of certain students.
7. They Reject Some Students
When a teacher refuses to acknowledge a student's presence, value or efforts by verbally communicating (or by communicating with young students with affirmative gestures like giving them star stickers), they may be a toxic teacher. A wealth of research suggests that pumping up students when they perform well can encourage them to keep doing well, but a student who strives for attention and any kind of acknowledgement of their hard work (particularly a young student) might feel like their efforts are pointless.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.