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"Schools are drowning in a toxic ethos"

A City of Nottingham secondary teacher Alix Barker made a public call this week for educators to model and reward the the type of ethics and behaviour between teachers that sets a good example for students and the fostering of good citizenship.


What is our role as educators? Is our job simply to impart subject knowledge and assess progress, or is there more to it? Surely, there has to be – we are moulding young children into adults.

We’re teaching young people not just what we know about our respective subjects, but we are also responsible for modelling behaviour as good citizens. They see us interact with peers. They watch our manners and our social etiquette. They take note of what we care about, what drives us and how we operate. Students see us at our best and our worst.

So what happens when the culture of your school rewards the worst kind of behaviour? How do we rise when we are drowning in a toxic ethos?

I have worked in education for 13 years. In my area, students’ home lives vary by extremes. Some students say "please" and "thank you". Some are grateful for time and attention. Some are thirsty for knowledge and eager to do a good job for its own sake. But some aren’t.

I don’t see teaching as a role that begins and ends at academia. There are countless opportunities to form young leaders, to inspire children to be kind, to form the kind of community that will be productive and supportive in years to come. When you know better, you do better. So what happens when the system breaks and teachers aren’t leading by example?

Teachers against each other

From "old boys’" culture, cliques forming, and lines being drawn in the sand – "you either bleed the school colour or you’re against us". There is no room for questioning, for collaborative dialogue, for doing the right thing. We no longer reward creativity and innovation. We reward submission, falling into line, playing the game. What are students seeing and digesting, when they see teachers stepping over each other? How do students interpret promotions being given to teachers who do not always do a good job in the classroom? What do they think when they see SLT mock or undermine staff in front of them? It happens. The young people notice. They question it. "X doesn’t even do anything," they say. "Why does Z do all the work and people think it’s Y?" "A only does that in front of B." "C is so rude." "That’s not fair."

That’s at first. And then. Then. Then they start to become a little more savvy.

"X does it, and look where it’s got them." "No one will notice, I’ll just do it when they’re not looking." "X says it all the time." Laughing unkindly. Rolling eyes. Stealing ideas. Rushed work.

And why? Because they see it. Copy. We’ve modelled it.

What are we creating? Are these the characters we want in our communities? Do we want adults who will turn the other way instead of stepping up and speaking out? Are the leaders of the future "nodders", unwilling to cause a little disruption in the name of morality? Are we turning our back on kindness, on doing the right thing, even if no one is watching?

And yet. Maybe that’s what we should be teaching them. That life isn’t fair and you need to learn to play the game, lest you get left behind. Maybe playing fair doesn’t get you anywhere. Perhaps students need to toughen up and take notes from the people at the top, however they got there.

I hope not. But it does keep me awake at night.

Originally published in TES magazine on June 2, 2019. Nottingham is a city in central England's Midlands region known for its role in the Robin Hood legend.


For more on ways to address toxic culture in your school, workplace, business, and/or community, check out Save Your City: How Toxic Culture Kills Community & What To Do About It. Section of the book specifically address the role of civic education in fostering the type of values, character and skills that can support healthy, vibrant democratic communities.



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