Now that the hiring season is almost coming to a close, we can re-group and re-think how our current faculty and staff are faring in our school environments, both more senior and recent hires. Are people on the verge of leaving that we, in leadership, wish would stay?
Toxic Work Culture/Environment
What can we learn from such a phrase? Toxic work cultures, in my view, refer to those environments in which negativity and negative interactions are common to the point where they feel “normalized.” It may appear that most colleagues are in a constant state of angst, upset, stress, and perpetual disagreement. No one seems to trust anyone and what is real and rational seems under siege. Naysayers have more influence over what is positive.
So, what can we learn? We can certainly expect a dose of this in every school environment but more importantly, we can assess for ourselves how much we can tolerate and handle in our day-to-day work. Can you tolerate a colleague's raised voice toward you? What about tears, excessive gossip born out of insecurities, or even being told weekly that “nothing in this school works. Everyone is a problem, and nothing ever gets solved.” Can you handle a rhetoric of negative absolutes? Do you come across colleagues who simply do not express any joy or happiness to be in the current school they work at? We all have our not-so-great days. However, when the feelings are intense and frequent, met with an unusual amount of sick days taken, and the dreaded, “I don’t want to go to work tomorrow,” once Sunday evening comes around, then you might be in the midst of or experiencing a toxic work environment.
As leaders, we know it is often difficult to address the root cause of this if not done or explored early on. Sometimes it is difficult to realize or accept that those in leadership may need to own some of this responsibility. The more such feelings fester, the more challenging it is to address, and in some cases, even keep your newer hires. Of course, working at any institution is like being in a relationship, it has its ups and downs, periods of exhilaration, and periods of disenfranchisement.
So how do we get out from under this and make our work environments more positive and sustainable for our teachers and, consequently, our students? Let’s consider some data collection practices which we can look at that would support efforts toward creating and maintaining a healthy work environment for all our constituents.
The Power of Empathy Interviews
Can we agree that understanding the wellbeing status of your school community is essential as you go into the recruitment season? In this context, we would want to understand if members of our community are:
1. feeling supported and challenged in their goals and professional development, and
2. being heard in their opinions in decision-making, where applicable.
Finding these out can be done through surveys, focus groups, or even anecdotal feedback. Knowing what strong assets your community possesses and being able to speak to and showcase these throughout your next hiring cycle can only be a positive draw for candidates. It can be the difference between them joining your institution versus another. Anyone can “study” your school and, based on the facts presented by your website, make some determinations. But can we, as leadership, truly speak to the heart of how our constituents feel about the school? Empathy interview questions, in my opinion, should include:
1. open questions instead of questions that yield a yes, no, or one-word responses
2. opportunities for those being interviewed to offer suggestions in discussion with the one interviewing.
One key thing in empathy interviews, the one being interviewed should be able to choose a person in a leadership position by whom they would like to be interviewed.
For those schools that go through an accreditation process, you might be familiar with surveys given to your constituents to help identify and verify the strengths and challenges of your school community. But what about creating your own school-based survey to be utilized and reflected upon each semester?
If we in leadership wish to get at the heart and pulse of where our schools are, surveys are one of the most effective tools. Sure, we can walk the hallways, stop in and observe classes, coach new hires, or even have the weekly drop-in discussions offered to teachers, students, and parents to hear their thoughts on how the school is running. But if we want candid and direct feedback, then anonymous surveys would allow for that space and opportunity to take shape and form (gosurvey.in).
As a best practice, surveys should not be centered around one individual but rather the role the individual holds, and how that role is carried out in the needs of the community. If done properly, this can be a nuanced and effective way to pierce into the heart of the institution on perceptions around teaching practices, professionalism, how individuals feel about the mission statement, and if and/or how it is carried out within the school culture.
Strong surveys that are well-balanced ask the same set/type of questions to each constituent, helping to give a consistent way of looking at the data generated. For example, if you want to know the effectiveness of a program your school runs, such a question might look like:
1 (do not agree) - 5 (strongly agree)
Students: 1 2 3 4 5
I believe program X is effective; it supports me as a learner.
Parents: 1 2 3 4 5
I believe program x is effective; it supports my child as a learner.
Faculty: 1 2 3 4 5
I believe program X is effective; it supports my students in their learning.
Administrators: 1 2 3 4 5
I believe program X is effective; it supports our learners within our community as it relates to our strategic plan.
Having a common pattern of language when surveying each constituent allows for consistency. It also helps in identifying clearly defined beliefs the school holds, the relevance of programs implemented, and areas that are deemed successful or need to be addressed.
I enjoy a good suggestion box…if I intend to follow up with the suggestions posed. If you can think back to the last time you made a recommendation as part of a team to a larger team or to your supervising team, you hoped that those reading your recommendation would at least consider them strongly. I think we can agree that nothing is more frustrating than being asked your opinion, giving it, and then having it not even be read, considered, or worse, ignored once read. In using this mode, those in managing positions could recognize that this is another way to take the “morale temperature” of your community members.
So, What’s Next?
As noted in my earlier article, Getting Our House in Order, at healthy institutions/schools, constituents are heard and experiences are valued. The administration has a finger on the pulse of school culture. Proper monitoring and analysis, implementing community surveys twice per academic year, monthly suggestion boxes, and scheduled empathy interviews can lead to meaningful and thoughtful change in a school community that really thirsts for it.
These modes mentioned above allow for robust feedback and can capture the current state of a school community. Addressing areas of concern through a consistent action plan can help to boost morale among current faculty/staff. It can also draw in a stronger pool of new hires and help retain those you just hired. This preemptive work can be a precursor to sustainable hiring practices we all look to adopt as we re-engage once more in the hiring season in just a few months. After all, it's not always about finding the right people; if we as leaders create the right environment, then we will draw unto our organizations, the right people (Sinek, Simon).
Read more about recruitment and hiring practices in Should I Stay or Should I Go? Considerations Before Signing a New Contract, Getting Our House in Order: Creating an Effective Hiring Environment, A Seat at the Table: Who’s Invited to the (Hiring) Party?, and A Recruiter's Interview Toolbox.
Importance of Surveys in the Education Sector. https://www.gosurvey.in/blog/importance-of-surveys-in-education-sector
The International Educator, Getting Our House In Order (Washington, K., 2022)
Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe, Sinek, Simon: TED Talks
Kenya J. Washington currently holds a position as assistant principal in the upper school at the United Nations International School, NY, USA. Her background is steeped in student support services, mental health, and learning support, secondary through university. She possesses over 15 years of secondary school experience in international education in the areas of administration and leadership and promoting best practices for educators to support all learners.