Why do schools struggle to improve their toxic school cultures?

To understand the underlining causes of toxic school cultures, we need to look at human natures of teachers. Teachers are like any people, and we are all different. Accepting this fundamental reality about teachers is critical to understanding and solving a school’s toxic culture.  Building positive school cultures is a principal’s most challenging task.  Principals have to appeal to all stakeholders while producing positive results.  

Growing research shows effective teachers have the greatest impact on students’ learning outcomes; however, effective teachers are limited. The biggest challenge for any school administrator is how to turn ineffective teachers into effective teachers. One quick solution is to enforce conformity among all teachers to ensure group accountability. The basis of the solution is forcing effective teachers to “support”, or enforce accountability on, ineffective teachers. Common solutions include having common assessments, common lessons, or common strategies that all teachers need to agree on and implement in their classes. If all teachers agree to it, they would do it, right?

If we are being realistic, it is very challenging to make all teachers honestly do the same things. Likewise, it is impossible to make all classroom teachers do something they don’t want to do. Just because teachers publicly agreed, it does mean they will follow through in their classes. Despite the obvious conflict, many school administrators are limited to such tactics above. Likewise, not all teachers will contribute the same amount of effort. Most teachers need to plan many days ahead while other teachers would wait for the last minutes. There is a common saying in teaching, “why re-inventing the wheel” when you can just “steal it.” Likewise, why do I put in more effort than others? Why would teachers waste their own time on something when they just make copies of it; sometimes, they do not give any credit to the authors. Of course, one should not blame teachers or school administrators for such problems. It’s human nature.

In this article, we will look at how such impractical tactics create more harm to school cultures over time. When teachers feel like they are forced to do something, they go back to their classrooms trying to figure out a way to fake it. How can I do it so that it looks like I’m doing it? Over time, one teacher after another, it continues to create a school culture of lies and “fake.” Administrators stop trusting their teachers, teachers agree on things just because they feel they have to. Every year, it goes back to square one. 

Likewise, schools often spend $10,000s on various staff professional development with professional speakers, training, conferences, and other resources. Nevertheless, some schools’ cultures show little improvement over time, or the school cultures become more toxic.

As you can see, the problems of toxic school culture are not easy problems that can be solved solely with money or schoolwide teachers’ accountability. The dynamic and diverse needs and personalities of different teachers make it very challenging for school principals to enforce genuine conformity among all teachers.

Therefore, the heart of the solution must focus on the individual teacher’s needs, weaknesses, and strengths. Giving teachers more tasks and accountability does not make ineffective teachers better, it makes them worse. More importantly, the very few limited effective teachers are affected by the toxic culture over time. 

So what are the solutions? We know school principals cannot let classroom teachers do whatever they want in their classrooms. Schools pay teachers to teach, but teaching is such a broad job that can be accomplished with many different ideas, strategies, and approaches. The overall complex human natures make it very difficult for school leaders to support their teachers to improve their school cultures. 

Now that we understand the complexity of the problem, we can create practical solutions that address the challenges of the problems: How can we  (1) support the diverse needs of teachers while (2) promote individual accountability among teachers without limiting their creativity. 

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