What makes a ‘toxic’ environment? Part 3
This is part 3 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at teacher retention. Part two is here
I have mentioned that I have found that there are four needs we all share when it comes to engaging in learning, well it is the same for any activity in which we wish to collectively share and this includes teaching. Part two introduced the need for a sense of belonging for learner engagement.
Teachers are learners so it should come as no surprise that a sense of belonging is as important to teacher engagement, and importantly retention, as it is to learner engagement.
I believe one of our greatest behaviour drivers comes from a sense of belonging.
As a teacher I have seen a student’s behaviour driven so powerfully by this need that they were willing to be excluded for something they did not do rather than break a bond with a peer group. As adults it’s no different, and if we feel a sense of belonging there is a great deal we will do or tolerate to remain part of something.
Creating and building a sense of belonging may just be the key difference between leadership and management.
Autonomous responsibility is a more effective way of achieving outcomes than directed responsibility but requires a strong commitment to the aims and ethos of the organisation – a strong sense of belonging, of sharing the same vision and wanting the same things. Being told to do something ‘or else’ is nowhere near as effective as encouraging somebody to do something for the ‘good of the group’. The ‘stick’ will only work so long as there is a stick and somebody wielding it whereas the promise of a collective need for ‘carrots’ will get people to till and work the land, plant, nurture and protect even when there is nobody to check or inspect.
I am trying to make these analogies to underline where I think schools are going wrong in trying to retain teachers. Yes, some who come into the profession are not suited and leave but there are some who leave before their skills are honed and their experiences give them the greatest rewards of being a teacher – of making a difference to people’s lives and life chances. They do this because they do not have a strong enough sense of belonging to overcome the early struggles.
How long do these struggles last?
I was told in secondary education it takes six years to ‘get your feet under the table’ as it were and I believe it to be true. Why six years? Well because you have to see your own ‘first-year’ group, the one that started the school at the same time as you, through school and then you need at least one year to recognise and build on the benefits of your experience. I would imagine there is a similar time frame and rational in primary education.
What sustains you in these early years is the building of comradeship, establishing relationships and forming that sense of belonging. It does not happen by chance, I believe it needs leadership that is broader in its aims and function than achieving targets.
What prompts mid-career teachers to leave the profession?
This brings me onto why teachers in mid-career or before a normal retiring point leave the profession. I know there is more than one reason for practised teachers to leave the profession but in my experience the process starts once a sense of belonging is lost. As I said earlier we will put up with a great deal if there is a strong sense of belonging but once this is diminished we begin to reconsider what it is we are doing and why we are doing it.
Creating that sense of belonging
I suggest that to create and sustain a strong sense of belonging in schools it needs leadership that understands the purpose of a ‘mission statement’* and uses it effectively to challenge everything they do in order to build a shared sense of belonging. Imagine how you would feel having collectively contributed to, and ‘bought into’ a mission statement and then seeing it ignored during key decision-making processes. In other words, doing something that the organisation to which you belong does not see as it’s purpose or that will further that purpose in order to follow some other path or directive rather than challenge it. You would begin to question why you are part of that organisation and your sense of belonging would be challenged. My view is that leadership should be aware of this and actively work to do only that which promotes its mission and where necessary deflect those that do not. We will support and follow those that stand up for what we believe in and withdraw our support for those who do not and in the process shatter our sense of belonging.
* A note about ‘mission’ statements. In my experience ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ statements are wrongfully used as one term, interchangeable, and meaning the same.
What makes a ‘toxic’ environment? Part 2
This is part 2 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at what makes it difficult for learners to engage in the learning and what we, as teachers, can do about it. Part one is here
It is easier to run away than stay and fight but this depends on what tools you have to fight with. Let me give you an example:
If you want somewhere to hang up your coat and you have a screw and a hammer you may be tempted to hammer in the screw*. On the other hand, if you have a nail and a screwdriver you are less likely to try.
Learning and developing tools to deal with emotions and situations means you have to be involved in a constructive way, you have to be engaged in the process in order to practice and become skilled.
Deciding to engage in something that makes us uncomfortable means tipping the balance in favour of gain over pain. Beware though, we can feign engagement if our need to comply is strong enough. On the other hand, if our learning needs are met then we are more likely to truly engage.
Just what our learning needs though?
As a teacher it took me some time to work this out and thanks to a number of less than compliant learners who taught me a lot about teaching and more than a little research I believe I eventually identified four essential learning needs. If these four needs are met, most of them, most of the time, then we are more likely to stick around and attempt to engage in learning when the environment we are in feels toxic to us. Put simply, and using my earlier analogy of tools, we are more likely to go looking for a hammer to hammer in our nail or a screwdriver to drive in our screw and therefore successfully hang up our coat (a metaphor for staying too).
I am of the opinion that in a learning environment ‘toxic’ means ‘emotionally uncomfortable’ and one of my biggest concerns about teaching is that we do not spend enough time discussing this aspect of learning with learners. We find it very difficult to truly engage in the learning process when they are emotionally uncomfortable. Try it, think about a time you were anxious, frightened or distracted. Did you find it easy to listen, to take instructions to think straight or to recall what was said to you afterwards? Probably not.
Back to those four learning needs.
The first and probably most important need we have is a sense of belonging. There are two aspects to meeting this need and the first is getting to know your students.
Any teacher will tell you that you need to get to know your class. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery! Not just their names though, but something about them as individuals. I categorise this as something you could have a conversation about other than the lesson, something that interests them. If you learn to listen and acknowledge and respond to the odd “red herring” question you will soon find out what it is. Here are some things to get you started:
The second part of this need can be accomplished by giving them all membership of a group defined by you. Be careful here – positive attributes only. Talk about the group in the positive at all times, no matter how you feel at that moment. So if the subject is maths (sorry maths!) and it the last lesson of the week and they have just had PE remember to tell them how much you look forward to teaching them, how it always sets you up for the weekend when they achieve in this lesson. I have heard teachers say “Here come my stars” as the most challenging group arrives and they are always welcoming.
So there we have BELONGING from a teaching perspective. Of course, there is much more to discuss about this need and the challenges meeting it creates. Next, we will look at belonging from the perspective of teacher retention.
*I have known a hammer to be referred to as the ‘Birmingham screwdriver’ but I have no idea why!
Understanding Learning Needs: an account
It’s not often, unfortunately, that I find another teaching professional who writes a post that corroborates my work on LQ and PBCF but here is one by Jodie Jasmin
Jodie shares her first thoughts when students are not engaged in the learning.
“My first thoughts when I hear a student is consistently misbehaving are;
1. What’s happening at home?
2. Do you have a good teacher-student bond?
3. Does your teacher speak to you with respect?
4. Are the lesson activities engaging and tailored to your needs?”
Sound familiar? It will if you have been reading this blog.
Jodie’s list clearly points to the four learning needs of Power Belonging Choice and Fun that we all have and must fulfil to be engaged in the learning process.
It’s a great article, and I am not just saying that because it looks as though we are of similar mind. Jodie hits the nail on the head quite nicely. By meeting learning needs you will find learning behaviour the primary behaviour in your lesson. As Jodie sums up by saying
“It’s about taking simple ideas and seeing how we can deconstruct a basic task to recreate a better idea in support of all students learning – knowing them and what they need in order to focus, because they truly are all worth it.”
Jodie’s full article is hosted here on Te@cher Toolkit:
You can find my article on LQ and lesson planning here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-a6
My introduction to PBCF can be found here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-4