A toxic school culture can have a devastating impact on staff as shared in this personal account of  intimidation, bullying and discrimination, from Sheetal Smith.

It is hard to believe that toxic school cultures exist. What we find happening behind closed doors is unacceptable – and it is usually the highest performing teachers who aren’t afraid to jump ship first! Some of the professionals who teach our future generations integrity, respect, empathy, humility and collaboration are the same individuals who are also responsible for creating a negative environment. This results in bad behaviours and habits becoming accepted and dedicated teaching staff leaving the profession.

What is a toxic school culture?

I’ve read, shared and listened to many stories over the past year. Toxic school culture is defined as an environment where professionals are not on the same page, do not trust each other and where their performance and mental health has been negatively impacted. It is the result of behaviours and habits that have been left unchecked and, unfortunately, have become the norm.

My personal experience

As I read through the literature on the National Qualification for Headship, the phrase, ‘Improving pupils’ life chances,’ lingers in my mind. Reading about school cultures reminds me why I came into teaching 17 years ago. I decided to be a teacher because I wanted to make a difference; I wanted to be the person who created positive changes and improved pupils’ life chances. I love the sparkle, the magic and the lightbulb moments.

As teachers and leaders, it is our responsibility to maintain a strong school culture with high expectations of staff and pupils. It is important to have trust, efficacy, teamwork, engagement with data, organisational learning and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is up to us to improve pupils’ life chances together – but what if there is a total breakdown of relationships?

How do you come back from a team that has given you grief? They have bullied you, shown racial micro-aggressions and truly made school life a living nightmare.

Would you stay?

Unfortunately, a while ago, I experienced being in the deepest, darkest ditch of my teaching career. I had returned to a workplace that I had honestly adored. Over the years, I had been responsible for driving improvements in many curriculum areas and ensuring school standards were the highest they had ever been. I was leading the preparation of an Ofsted inspection and was pretty confident I would get the school to outstanding. Due to the pandemic, my maternity leave and our Headteacher’s absence, the school was unable to keep up with all the government expectations and a lot needed to be done.

It all started on my return with a temporary leadership title. As you can imagine, keeping everyone happy in a workplace is a challenge, but this was different; it was personal. Colleagues were unhappy with the choice of leadership: “Why is she in charge?” “What does she know?” “I’ve been here longer!” “I’m older!” “I know the school better!” Seems quite small and petty, thinking about it now. Day by day, the environment became toxic due to
the fixed mindset of individuals.

From the start, there was no pressure – I pleaded with everyone to do what was right for our pupils and the school in the absence of our Headteacher. The title didn’t matter to me; I had already done much more without one.

Despite efforts to collaborate and share the school’s vision and values for the next academic year, the fact that it was me was the biggest barrier: this young, driven, brown Londoner – the minority.

It is difficult to live in a society where you always have to prove yourself because of your skin colour. Despite having the qualifications and the track record, people don’t accept you because you are a non-white individual living in a white world. It is truly exhausting! You can’t ever let your guard down; you can’t make a mistake. Your white counterpart will always be forgiven but you won’t; you are non-white and not respected at the same level. Unfortunately, despite every effort to rectify the situation, it was not long before I became the villain. I’m not sure why. The lies to the chair of governors, the headteacher and new members of staff began to take their toll.

The intimidating members of staff threw me under the bus. Despite improving school standards and being thankful that their colleague could do a good job, my temporary title, my brown skin and my drive were the problem. They paralysed the workforce and it resulted in my mental health being affected like never before. It was the unexpected behaviour whilst being under so much pressure: looking the other way as I walked by, purposely leaving me out of conversations, lying about me, criticising my decision-making despite it being verified by the headteacher, spreading rumours – you get the picture.

Fulfilling the duties of a full-time class teacher, an acting head and having a sickly baby at home became intense and stressful. Every day became longer than the day before and the sleepless nights began. The support I was promised did not exist and I had no choice but to leave. On my last day, one of the perpetrators even said, “Off you go then!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The behaviour was very far from the school values that we promoted daily.

I cried. I cried a river. I cried so much that the deep wounds have yet to heal.

What happened next

At the time, I felt quite fragile – there was a lot to contend with. But the experience taught me everything I do not ever want to be. The more I shared my story, the more I realised how common it is. My friend, a talented Black female, was constantly racially abused. She once informed me that she was extremely unwell and vomited in the staff room bin in front of a senior leader. Instead of going home, she was asked to drink some water and go back to her class. In contrast, her white counterpart, who had had a tough morning in class, was told to go home because she was feeling stressed. How is this right? I have been told about Asian teachers being asked not to bring in Indian food during lunchtime or not to dress in salwar kameez – when did staff become so controlling? How can we teach tomorrow’s generation about equality when the very people teaching children do not believe what they preach?

I want to be the leader who lifts everyone around me, shows empathy and can empower staff to achieve strategic goals by creating a culture of trust and respect. The leader who shows honesty and integrity. I want to be in a community that does ‘the right thing because it is the right thing to do.’ The leader who does not lose sight of the bigger picture and ensures we truly do improve future generations’ life chances.

Where am I now?

I was promoted and now have the opportunity to ensure there is respect, collaboration and integrity in the workplace. I read the many stories on the Facebook group, ‘Life after teaching – exit the classroom and thrive,’ from the nearly 90K members who are leaving or have left the profession that showed them no respect, despite their years of service.

The experience opened many unexpected doors. I became the voice of thousands of Black and Asian women teachers who have yet to find the courage to share their experiences with the world. My writing has been published for thousands to read and I’ve formed relationships with people who are fighting for change.

I’m still healing because there are so many unanswered questions, and I am waiting for an apology that will never come. But my story is not a new one. It occurs daily in our schools and many dedicated staff are quitting the profession – why would you want to stay?

So, I plead with you: if you are a leader, remember why you chose to be in a school environment. Show respect, honesty, integrity and collaboration. Do what is right for your pupils even if that means having a difficult conversation. Treat people equally. We are human. We can teach, we can lead, and our skin colour does not determine how good we are at it.


  • Sheetal Smith

    Sheetal is an experienced senior leader in the primary education sector. Having had a range of leadership roles and completing a number of middle leadership programmes in inner-London schools, she is now at the beginning of her NPQH journey. She has been responsible for many curriculum areas, including English, RSE and assessment and is currently leading Key Stage Two.
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