What makes a ‘toxic’ environment?
I have written this article to address the debate around teachers leaving teaching and the stress levels of pupils presently being experienced and reported.
It is true that not all learners ‘like’ school and some do their best to avoid it. It is also true that we are seeing many teachers leave the profession, often down to a lack of job satisfaction or ‘burn out’.
We could say that any environment that causes us discomfort, stress or anxiety is ‘toxic’ but are there any factors that we can identify that makes the environment in schools, for learners and teachers, such that they want to get away from it? I believe we can and I believe it’s not that complicated to correct.
My first proposal is that if there is something missing from within our environment that we need to learn and to teach* that we will feel a level of discomfort. Whether we can tolerate that discomfort or not is dependent on a number of factors and includes the following:
- Agency, our strategies for dealing with not having our needs met
- The significance of the outcome or reward for ‘surviving’ the experience
- Support systems and the impact of their intervention both within and external to the environment in which we feel discomfort
- Relationships with people we consider significant or important to us within that environment
- Stamina, the length of exposure and our mental and physical well being
- Willingness to be compliant
Just like in a physical environment where, if we persist beyond our capacity to manage or endure, it is likely to cause us physical harm a ‘toxic’ teaching and learning environment will cause us harm too. In my experience this can also manifest itself as a physical injury but is more likely to be our mental health that is at risk. The danger with this is that mental health issues are harder to recognise and carry a greater stigma than those that are physical in nature. As a result we hide our discomfort and disguise it in some way. A dramatic but relevant example of this I believe is the reports of soldiers in the First World War who carried out self-inflicted injuries in order to avoid the combat environment that they were no longer able to cope with mentally.
In teaching and learning I have seen and experienced high levels of environment based stress and can categorise them according to the symptoms that are presented, these include but are not exclusive to:
- Lack of a capacity for change
- Reliance on habits and routines in order to cope
- Irritability, a lack of patience or objectivity
- Relationship breakdown and withdrawing
- Out of character behaviours
- Minor illnesses such as aches and pains, headaches and a lack of sleep.
My experiences and research has led me to believe there are four needs specific to teaching and learning that, if absent or not fulfilled in some way, lead to a toxic environment and the conditions I have listed. Ultimately and where possible people will look for and find a way to cope or ultimately a way out of that environment and in extreme cases, where agency is limited, this can mean the most drastic of actions relative to the individual. A younger student may throw a tantrum and be expelled from the lesson or not even turn up to school. A teenager or adult may withdraw or even attempt suicide if they can see no other ‘way out’.
*I suggest all teachers are learners too so there are a common set of needs for both groups.
Next I will look at what can we do and what I believe is at the heart of the problem?