5 reasons teachers remain in toxic work cultures

Currently, we are experiencing an unprecedented teacher exodus, in addition to shrinking applicant pools and education program enrollment. The reasons for leaving the teaching profession are abundant, but what’s not talked about, are the reasons many remain in a toxic culture.

It’s time for teachers, many of which, if not most, view their profession as a “calling”, or “passion,” to recognize no matter how much you love what you do, there is a level of dignity and self-respect that one must retain to remain happy and productive. At the end of the day, teaching is a job, of which there is an employer and employees. It’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe and supportive environment for its employees. Our school districts, due to many factors, including political policy, are not meeting their obligations to workers.

Most research indicates nearly 50 percent of teachers will quit within five years. They quit for various reasons – low pay, disruptive student behavior, lack of support, excessive workload, to name a few. What’s not being brought to the forefront enough is mental health. Teachers are walking into toxic work cultures daily, and it’s taking a toll on their well-being. And the teacher’s state of mind can adversely affect the achievement of students.

Teachers from New York to California, From Minnesota to Florida, are reporting similar issues. They are no different in my state of Kentucky, or city of Louisville. Policies are created without teacher input and adversely affect the teacher’s work environment. Districts aren’t providing resources, mostly due to a lack of funding, to deal with disruptive students, are burdening teachers with excessive workloads, and are employing unfunded mandates. At the end of each year, teachers are rarely given credit for successes and are always blamed for a school’s failure. Now, teachers fight lawmakers for funding, pay, pensions, and more. We regularly discuss the trauma and stress of children, but teachers are working in distressed environments daily, and it’s taking a toll.

So why remain while so many have fled? Some of it may be wishful thinking, but much of it has to do with this perception, perpetuated by teaches and the public, that because we serve children, we must endure hardship and sacrifice, otherwise the children won’t be successful. This mentality is a bunch of bull. I’d argue because teachers are willing, or forced, to accept toxic environments, we are actually doing the children great harm.

Richard F. Chambers, President and CEO of the Institute of Internal Auditors, who has 40 years of experience in the internal audit profession, gives some insightful reasons why some remain in toxic work cultures that align well with teachers.

“People believe they are doing good work despite the culture,” he wrote in his blog.

This is probably true of teachers. Chambers writes, “in many cases, the work being performed is worthy and necessary. These individuals tend to ignore the culture around them, and seek to differentiate themselves from those fostering the culture. Some workers become tethered to a job they believe can’t be done without them. That, of course, is generally not the case. The job will indeed continue without them, but it is difficult to make the break.”

A second reason Chambers gives is, people feel it would be disloyal to leave those who are suffering along with them. He writes, “I found myself in such a situation. As a top member of management, I was trying to be the good guy in a truly toxic environment. Walking away was difficult, because I felt like I would be abandoning those who I was trying to shield from hard and spiteful leaders. Frankly, that kept me in the job longer than I should have.”

There is no doubt teachers feel a strong bond with their peers. For a lack of a better analogy, it’s a similar bond that forms between soldiers, or police officers, or firefighters. These are individuals who depend greatly on their peers and battle adverse conditions daily. Teachers often share an unbreakable bond. Those who I work with in previous schools and tougher environments, remain some of my closest friends today.

A third reason is, people feel trapped by their circumstances. This applies to so many workplaces, but fits well in education. Chambers explains, “Not unlike those who remain in bad relationships or marriages, some workers feel they have no alternative. Fear of losing income or benefits can make jumping to another job – much less walking away from the toxic job – difficult.”

A fourth reason applies to a minority group of teachers, but we all know some. Some people don’t want to be held accountable. Toxic cultures provide a shield to those who don’t want to be held accountable for their performance. Chambers states, “Such cultures often rely heavily on unnecessary processes that allow a checkbox mentality to prevail. Poor employees can find comfort and protection in red tape and process.” The check the box mentality is prevalent in education, which is full of unnecessary paperwork and tasks that hinder performance and protects some.

Lastly, we can become infected by the culture.

“A toxic culture driven by poor tone at the top can create a go-along-to-get-along mentality,” Chambers writes. “Employees learn to look the other way and not ask questions. In some ways, employees clock out their ethics when they clock in at work.”

In many ways, employees may develop strategies to disengage from moral feelings, such as self-respect and self-worth, and shame, and guilt, from immoral behavior.

“It also is important to understand that toxic cultures aren’t black and white,” Chambers explains. “Culture operates on a continuum that ranges from healthy, innovative, and empowering to unhealthy, stagnant, and demoralizing. That means good people doing good work can rehabilitate bad cultures. The right person or people with unwavering moral character can become the force of good in a land of evil. That aspiration itself may be why people remain.”

Yes, teachers may feel they can be the one to positively affect a workplace, a student’s life, or a co-worker’s. Yet, we can’t lose sight of our self-respect and self-worth. Teachers are employees, tasked with certain duties, and employers must provide teachers with the resources and support to perform their responsibility in a dignified manner. Teachers are highly-educated, highly-skilled professions, that are often treated unlike any other profession.

Those remaining in the struggle, those facing toxic environments, should let their voices be heard and demand change. Those who allow others to take advantage of your passion, will take more and more. They will take as much as you are willing to permit.


Jason Starr Nelson is a Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) teacher and proud supporter of public education. This piece originally appeared on his blog.

  4 comments for “5 reasons teachers remain in toxic work cultures

  1. Mungie von Munchaven
    September 11, 2020 at 6:32 am

    No one here seems to be commenting on the toxicity the teacher’s unions bring to the table. Teacher’s unions make it very hard to put pressure on school systems from the outside. During this “pandemic”, I as a parent have had several of my child’s teachers speak to me as if they are selling me something, things to the effect of “Wouldn’t you love to have your kid back in school so you dont have to feel frustrated?” Seriously, what kind of sales pitch is that? We have home schooled our kid in a hybrid program for most of this year. Indeed its difficult at times. Both my wife and I work in essential markets, so there was no lull in demand for our services.

    Recently I read about how teacher’s unions and certain politicians are using the pandemic to hold the education system hostage until their demands are met. Then it all clicked, especially when I heard the president say “open the schools or I’ll cut funding”. Teachers unions and the Democratic Party are obviously the target of that, and with good reason. Personally, and in spite of never missing a day of work during the pandemic (well ok, i did miss one), I still do not personally know a single person who contracted COVID, and I only of one or two who knew a person with COVID. My wife is an RN, and at no tine was any of the hospiatals she worked in overwhelmed with COVID patients although there were a few around. She has noted inconsistencies in COVID reporting all over. Now the average person doesnt even wear their mask properly or consistently…yet all the “spikes” in Coronavirus seem to be largely depicted only by media outlets like CNN. Not seeing that reflected on the street at all! So more and more its beginning to look like indeed the pandemic will simply “evaporate” after the election, and although in the beginning the new virus hit us hard, it has ended up at this point to be like a sibling to the flu, over-demonized by biased media circles for political gain. The teacher’s union is an opportunist group with friends in Washington who “help” other…and it is NOT “all about the kids”.

  2. Lisa King
    September 8, 2020 at 9:49 am

    This is because too many school administrators had their “teaching” experience in a gym instead of a classroom. They don’t have a clue what is best for teaching the academics, so they don’t bother considering the teachers and students when making decisions that affect instruction of core subjects. Excellent article!

  3. Seth Evans Tanner
    September 8, 2020 at 12:31 am

    Very well summarized! I have had similar difficulties, especially regarding reasons one through three. A major disruption is needed, and I believe a root problem is that we have moved away from the strength and meaning of e pluribus unum.

  4. Kim
    September 4, 2020 at 10:31 pm

    I have been teaching over 16 years. I’ve always appreciated how (IN MY OPINION) special education teachers, in general, maintain a level of respect for each other. Special education teachers try resolving issues as a Team. Also, when one of us gets down on ourselves or the profession, there is always a peer reminding us, ” Get over yourself!” & “It’s not about us, it’s about the kids!”
    During this horrific pandemic, so many government workers are being called out, for the illegal things they do and how they use their power to abuse those they should be protecting.
    FINALLY!!

    I “wish” parents of children with IEPS understood, how important it is for every mandate to be followed accordingly. I wish they did not accept the bullshit that come out of the mouths of certain principals. For instance, ”oh your child did not have a paraprofessional this (entire) year because, you know the budget cuts.”
    I want parents to know their rights!
    I want to hear parents voices, fighting for the “minimum” of what their children are entitled to.
    If parents only knew how often special ed
    teachers debate with administration, that these IEP mandates are not being met. Or how Special Ed. teachers are reminded to “choose their battles.”
    When the truth is, we should see “those in charge” being arrested for not following the students IEP
    It is ILLEGAL not to follow this Legal document.
    Abuse of power by deciding to do things illegally,
    should hold the same penalty for all.
    Maybe one day. How sad

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