Tag Archive | teacher stress

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?

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What happens when we interfere with the learning relationship?

The Learning Relationship explained

Let’s start by explaining what a “learning relationship” is. This graphic is my way of showing how the responsibility for learning should, over time, pass from the teacher to the learner. The time period may be a single term, year, key stage, a course, or educational phase (primary/secondary). This is the form of relationship that will ultimately produce independent rather than dependent learners, learners able to manage their own learning rather than be dependent on others to manage it for them.

learning responsibility diagram ideal

At the start the teacher has the primary responsibility and will have planned and resourced the course. Little is expected of the learner other than turning up and having some basic equipment appropriate to the course. For example the learner responsibility may consist of turning up with a pen and pencil or include a book, an apron, or PE kit or other personal specialist subject equipment. A positive disposition is always useful as is an element of motivation to learn. Where these do not exist then the teacher has an additional, but not insurmountable challenge.

Once the course has started and the teacher sets out their expectations it becomes increasingly the responsibility of the learner to engage in the learning, making an effort to take part, to work at understanding and applying knowledge. Think of this as being set a topic to learn or a book to review or completing classwork and homework.  This does not absolve the teacher of responsibility, as the diagram shows there is still a significant requirement on the teacher and these may take the form of motivating, encouraging, coaching, or tailoring approaches and materials etc. There is never a point where the teacher is without some responsibility.

Planned responsibility changes

There comes a time in the learning relationship period when the teacher will temporarily take back some of the responsibility. This reclaiming some element of responsibility is primarily is a time of redirecting, initiating, review or assessment of (and for) learning. It is both a small percentage of what has already transferred and for a limited period of time only.   There may be several of these occasions over the course but it important to recognise that each one is planned and forms part of the process. The teacher will prepare the learner for such occasions making sure that they understand the purpose and outcome of each one.

Lesson planning needs to account for this approach and I have written about how that can happen and what it looks like here:  http://wp.me/p2LphS-a6  A more in depth lesson approach is in the form of mindful learning, again I have covered this topic in an earlier article. See here “An Introduction to Mindful Teaching”: http://wp.me/p2LphS-om and “Just what is Mindful Learning”:  http://wp.me/p2LphS-u for ways to question and interact with learners that promotes learning responsibility both from a learner and teacher perspective. A great deal of my work on Learning Intelligence, or LQ, is based on finding ways to promote in learners the ability to manage their own learning environment to meet their learning needs. The idea of the learning responsibility ratio is part of that work.

LQ round

So what can be so powerful as to distort this ideal model of teaching and learning?

Martin Robinson (www.martinrobinson.net) says in his article “Teachers, Cheating and Selling Achievement” [i]

“Different children every year are expected to perform better than children did the year before. This means that although every year the children change, the school is expected to improve, the children are not the reason for this improvement, the school is.  This is not teacher centred or child centred education, it is school centred, and with statistical modelling it will be school eat school out there.”

How then does this impact on the teaching and learning responsibilities?

Consider for a moment the concept of responsibility and who is most likely to assume or feel responsible for examination or test results. I am not asking who is responsible but who is most likely to act in a way that shows responsibility. My experience is it is the teacher who immediately feels responsibility for their students achievement and rightly so. Few teachers lack any form of relationship with their learners and are inclined to feel an element of responsibility. There are however caveats to carrying this burden. If the teacher has done everything they can or could do and despite their best efforts the learner has failed to comply with instruction, complete work, or co-operate with the teacher then we would probably agree it is not the teacher’s fault. The outcome is not the teacher’s responsibility (fault).

In a high stakes environment that requires year on year improvement, that sets threshold levels or standards it is not acceptable to describe a lack of achievement as being down to the learner. Blame must be allocated. Blaming the learner[ii] will not wash with government and so it must be the school that is at fault. The school after all is both a responsible organisation and an identifiable target more so than any individual pupil. The stupidity of this is made clear if we take the following example.

A man is driving (the pupil) a perfectly good, safe, car (the school) and loses control and crashes.

Let’s consider who is responsible for the accident.  Is it the car (the school) or the driver (the pupil) of the car who is responsible?

I think I would be safe in assuming most people would regard the driver to be at fault.

Distorting the Learning Responsibility line

The impact of blaming the school (and the school ultimately blaming the teacher) on the learning responsibility line is dramatic. It is no less dramatic on how learners can see themselves in terms of responsibility for the outcomes of their education.  Let me give you a personal example of what I mean before showing you the revised learning responsibility line and explaining why it becomes so distorted.

I had a sixth form student join my class from a neighbouring school recognised as “outstanding”. He was struggling and appeared not to have a firm grasp of the basics despite having excellent GCSE grades.  He was struggling and so I decided to ask why and see if I could not put things right. He listened attentively and politely said “You do it for me Sir. You know it will make you look good” Apart from being shocked by his answer, and his cheek, I began to wonder where this attitude had come from. What he had worked out was the distortional effects on the learning responsibility line brought about by the wrongful allocation of responsibility and accountability. He knew that because of his past track record of achievement any future “failure” could easily be accounted for by my teaching. It was I who was responsible for him succeeding. I was left wondering how long this particular student had known this! I did not “do it for him” and possibly that day he learnt his very first lesson. He never did finish the course!

Back to the distortion of the learning responsibility line of the Learning Responsibility Diagram. If the teacher takes back responsibility either by too large a degree or too frequently then the decent of the line is slowed and the transition becomes or assumes a “saw tooth” like profile rather than being gradually graded towards a transfer of responsibility.

Learning Responsibility line Distorted

The causes of the teacher resuming responsibility are always down to accountability. Teacher accountability arrives in a number of guises but always with the same drivers – assessment, inspection or observation. The higher the stakes the greater the number of occasions of imposed responsibility the teacher experiences. In such circumstances we also see a higher workload and greater levels of stress for the teacher. Teachers are for the most part compliant. They have their learner’s interest at heart and this makes them vulnerable to such pressures. Add in performance related pay, career impact of working in a “failing” school and you have the perfect storm conditions. If you make the consequences of “failing” high enough people, and teachers and schools are no exception, will do extraordinary things to make sure they don’t fail.

The outcome of the distorted learning line may not be seen in examination or performance results but it will be in the ability of the learner to manage their own learning to meet their learning needs. We will not have independent lifelong learners but we will have dependent learners who lack the responsibility for their own learning. We will have drivers that blame their cars for not preventing them from having accidents.

car crash

As for the teachers and the schools well we will probably have a teacher shortage and failing schools. There is no other possible long term outcome unless we change the focus of responsibility from the teacher to the learner.  As Martin says “it will be school eats school out there” and this does nothing to promote learning or develop in the learner the skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours that will enable them to manage their own learning – to be life long learners.

If you want to find out more about how the LQ approach can raise attainment and enable learners then please get in touch. I run workshops and I can address TeachMeets, run CPD events or the like.

Other related articles:

The return to school looks at how leadership influences learning relationships.

Part 4: The one and only learning theory that counts is … looks at how apportioning blame is the only outcome of one way of doing something. Blame follows after the tightening of procedures, monitoring and checking.

 

[i] https://martinrobborobinson.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/teachers-cheating-and-selling-achievement/

[ii] Once again I have explored the Blame Game in a series of articles called “The one and only learning theory that counts is…”  You can find specific post concerning blame here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-r6

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