Toxic School Environments Make Teachers Sick

From Dr. Jacqueline Burnett-Brown’s Diverse Solutions Blog

Is your workplace a toxic environment? If there is more than one person per week out sick in your department, chances are it is. Before I left teaching one of the primary problems was the inability to take an actual sick day. You know, the kind when you are really sick. If I needed to take a sick day for myself or to attend to my daughter, my ethical compass would steer me away from that decision. My daughter and I ended up in school many times when we were unwell. This did, I admit, cause some resentment towards peers who seemed to take an average of at least two days off per month. While my sick days were building up, so was my stress level.

Cognitively, I understood why there were so many teachers out each week. Yet, I did not see the district or my school in particular doing anything to fix the problem. None of these teachers were bad teachers. It is just that education has gotten to the point that what is actually taught is irrelevant, and as long as students can be trained to pass tests like seals jumping through hoops, we do not need to invest a great deal of time immersing them into complicated plot lines, or delving into characters to determine motive. No, all we have to do is to make sure students are able to accurately identify which key term is associated with a cold passage read, and viola! We have done our jobs.

The sick days were needed because the toxicity of the school environment, of the district expectations which do not at all seem fitting with what I observed at the state or national level. So, the sick days are real because creativity is atrophying at lightning speed for teachers in our schools.

 On any given Friday as many as 25 teachers were out of a total of 290. That is nearly 10% of the teaching staff. By Wednesday each week what I began to call the “guilt” emails were circulating letting teachers know how many had already asked for Friday off. These emails ran up stress levels for many, myself included. You see, when my students came to my class after having at least one sub, and at times two on Friday, they were bored and restless. However, I had an engaging lesson ready to go, or more than likely an essay test or some activity to assess what was learned that week. Yes, even though their course scores did not factor into how well I was doing as a teacher, I knew that how they were doing in my class did matter to them.

 My soldering on ended up getting the better of me, however, because I was not taking time off from an environment that was becoming increasingly toxic. The overall lack of trust between administration and teachers was palpable, and it was permeating what had once been strong bonds between teachers. How can you trust your colleagues when you are having to lose your planning period at least once per week to cover their classes; and sometimes, when you are sick yourself?

 When situations like this occur in schools or other work environments, it is not because the teachers or employees are bad people, or are even irresponsible people. It is because leadership has either brought or introduced a toxin into the environment. When people love and are excited about their jobs, they do not miss work. There was never one meeting with the faculty at large or with individual departments to talk about the illness that was causing the need for sick days. There was no leadership accountability.

 When the work environment is toxic, it is trickle down. Toxic leadership leads to a toxic environment. Teachers need to be allowed their creativity for more than meeting a lettered standard. Good teachers meet those standards every day without having to write them on a board, or put them into a formalized lesson plan.

 If chefs in the finest restaurants were told they all had to cook the same meals on the same days, and that they had to survey restaurant patrons to collect data to determine if they were going to be allowed to be chefs anymore…they would take sick days too.

 One of the reasons for toxicity in the work environment is a lack of true diversity and inclusion. The current climate of many schools is that teachers are supposed to be the same, what I call Stepford Teachers, yet they are to differentiate the “standard fare” for their diverse classrooms so that every student can learn the same thing, and be able to apply it in the same way on a standardized test. That class is an example of a paradox. 

 If teachers cannot be diverse – using their individuality, their uniqueness and creativity – to diversify the lessons organically, then the entire concept of differentiation is missed. Teachers become teachers because they are creative people who have a desire to share their knowledge with others. Their knowledge, not what has been boxed and properly labeled for them.

                        author

Jacqueline Burnett-Brown

Dr. Burnett-Brown recently left public education due to injustices directed toward teachers as well as students on the rise in recent years. Due to her own experiences and incidents of discrimination and injustice witnessed, and also knowing the limitations of educator organizations such as PAGE and GAE, Dr. Burnett-Brown realized… MORE >

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