An exploration of aspects of toxicity in education such as workload, relationships, behaviour and environments; sharing how we can purge those toxins to keep mentally healthy, from Senior Lecturer and Primary Education Course Lead, Dr Poppy Gibson.

Being an educator is perhaps one of the most exciting and rewarding jobs a person could hope to have. How many other professions enable someone to feel they can be a change maker and have the power to make a difference to someone’s life, or indeed (hopefully) the lives of many?

But being an educator doesn’t come without other challenges. When it comes to our wellbeing, we all know that teaching is one of the professions with the highest levels of burnout, lack of retention, and poor levels of mental health, due to high workload and the difficulty in finding a work-life balance. This article considers where some toxic elements of education may lie, and how to navigate those negative waters in a way that will hopefully have the least influence on your mental health and prepare you with the strength and resilience to continue to thrive in a job that you know, deep down, you were born to do.

Toxicity and education

Jump onto any social media platform and search for ‘teaching’ and you are likely to be met with colourful photographs of smart classrooms, smiling adults, enthusiastic children with hands waving in the air and a whole array of fun and interactive resources just itching to be played with. But it would be naïve and unjust to think education is just a daily opportunity for fun, inspiration and learning. Of course, these things frequently happen and, as mentioned, teaching can be the most incredible career, but it is important to reflect upon its more toxic elements to consider how we may deal with them should they arise.

But what does ‘toxic’ really mean? If something is ‘toxic’, it means affected with or caused by a toxin or poison. If we were to ingest a toxic substance, the poison would cause us to feel unwell; our physical health would suffer and lead to detrimental results. Toxic elements in our workspaces and teaching environments can have similar effects on both our physical and mental health.

Toxic workload

We all know that one of the most challenging parts of teaching can be the workload. Regardless of the age of the learners we teach, on top of the actual teaching content and delivery, we have admin, communications, planning and assessment. Don’t let your workload poison the day-to-day running of your job. The key to managing your workload is sorting things by priority. Stephen Covey’s ‘Time Management Matrix’ is a great way to reflect upon the tasks you need to do and sort them by urgency and importance.

The other key action is to delegate. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and share the workload. Think whether there is another more junior member of staff in your network who may relish the chance to help divide up a particular task with you, which in turn will help their own personal and professional development. For example, maybe you need to make a digital poster for an event you have coming up; why not see if someone else could do this for you? It can be difficult to delegate sometimes, especially when we are passionate about the things we do and we enjoy doing them, but it is important to have a sensible balance, otherwise the toxicity will creep in and leave you up working late, anxious about deadlines, and rushing to get things done.

Toxic relationships

Working in education gives us the opportunity to work with a wide range of people of different ages and with different experiences. This can be a great way to share knowledge and develop your teacher toolkit as you learn teaching tips and tricks from those around you, as well as share some of your own inspirational ideas! But now and again you may come across a toxic relationship with a work colleague.

Firstly, please remember that their behaviour is not about you. Their behaviour may manifest in criticism of your teaching or your work. Their behaviour may involve them talking down to you in front of your learners or judging your teaching style. But if you know you are doing your best, and you have not had complaints about your work before or from others, it could be worth considering if perhaps this is a toxic relationship in your workplace. It may be difficult for you to address your feelings with the person involved, in which case consider if you have another member of staff, such as your line manager, that you could speak to about what is happening.

Sometimes, toxic relationships can be part of a bigger picture. Reflecting and talking about this in a safe space may help you understand more about the person’s behaviour.

Toxic behaviours

There may also be challenging behaviours from your learners. For younger learners, this may be in terms of their physical behaviour or engagement in your sessions. From older or adult learners, this may be through their email etiquette or demands on your time to support their own wellbeing needs. The best thing to do here is to step back from the situation and review: why are they acting this way? Is there something you could do to support this learner and avoid this behaviour? This may be switching the order of the lessons on your timetable, making ‘movement’
breaks in sessions to help keep learners engaged or to create FAQ sheets and PDFs for older learners to avoid them bombarding you with the same questions. Set up ‘Ask the tutor’ areas on virtual learning environments to collect and share questions or use chat groups (such as on Microsoft Teams) where students can ask questions and peers can help answer them if the tutor is busy.

Remember the boundary of your role. It can be difficult when we want to support our learners as best we can, but we must remember the remit of our job description is to focus on the teaching and learning. Ensure that while managing these behaviours, that you do not slip into toxic behaviours yourself. Aim to have a ‘switch off’ or ‘cut off’ time in the evening to avoid working late or responding to students late in the evening, as this warps their expectations and means they will expect replies in the evening as standard. Consider adding working hours to your email signature so the time boundary is clear. Make time to eat, drink and relax properly outside of work.

Purging the toxins and keeping mentally healthy

The best thing to do to look after our mental health is to reflect upon it and talk about it.

Even by reading this article, you are showing a positive attitude towards nurturing your wellbeing and mental health, by wanting to consider what more you can do.

Keep toxic levels low by taking time to reflect at the end of each day about what has gone well and what could have been better. What are you grateful for? What upset you? How can tomorrow be better? Feed these conversations back to your fellow educators in the staffroom, in the online staff meeting, or to your line manager.

Replace toxicity with positivity

A final note on the best way to combat toxicity in education – help replace toxicity with positivity. Don’t be afraid to highlight the things you are doing well; celebrate your achievements on social media or with colleagues at work. Compliment a colleague on something they are doing that you love or that you can see their learners are enjoying. Pass on positive feedback when you hear it. Sometimes, we don’t want to feel like we are ‘blowing our own trumpet’, especially when we may have been brought up being told not to ‘boast’ or ‘show off.’ But just think, there is only time for so many words in the day, only so much space in our conversations for sharing. So, share the positive.

Keep role modelling to those around you how we can thrive best when we look after ourselves and look after each other, and don’t settle for toxicity in education.

Author

  • Dr Poppy Gibson

    Poppy is a senior lecturer whose key interests involve children’s psychological development and mental health and wellbeing. She moved into higher education after over a decade working in London primary schools. Poppy holds a Doctorate in Education from Oxford Brookes University, and her doctoral thesis was awarded the ‘Most Downloaded’ from EThOS databases in Autumn 2020.
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