George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Toxic teams of educators develop for a variety of reasons that usually stem from the current cloud of paranoia, fear, and frustration enveloping public education -- but we need to fight the negativity! We're only hurting ourselves and our students.

Not Feeling the Love?

I've taught and coached at schools where the animosity between teachers is palpable. Individuals who are otherwise truly great teachers spitefully refuse to help each other or collaborate because of a variety of perceived slights, rumors, and personal judgments. They jealously guard their best lessons and strategies, convinced that their colleagues don't deserve to benefit from them.

There are no winners when teachers compete. We suffer from lack of support for each other. We lose the respect of our administrators who grapple with much larger issues. We disappoint the parents and community members who expect professionalism from their kids' teachers. Worst of all, our students are deprived of a cohesive learning environment where high expectations are the norm.

So how can teachers work together when the love is lost? How can we truly collaborate with people that, on a personal level, we would never speak with or be friends with? Do you have to "feel the love" for a team to work, as Shira Loewenstein describes (The Accidental Community: Feeling the Love), or can you collaborate effectively without it?

Preventing toxic teams from developing takes careful planning at the beginning of the school year, along with consistency and maintenance throughout the year. However, if you find yourself on a toxic team mid-year, there are steps that you can take to change the course of the team and maintain professionalism.

Prevention: How to Ward Off Toxicity in Your Team

1. Set Guidelines

Establish a list of norms and expectations for team behavior at the beginning of the year, and take turns revisiting them with conviction at the beginning of every single meeting.

2. Revisit and Revise

Open the norms and expectations for revision every quarter -- it's an opportunity for discussion and for each team member to exercise his or her voice.

3. Take Ownership

Establish a role for each team member at the beginning of the year, and switch it up quarterly. Some of these might include meeting facilitator, minutes taker, action-item tracker (keeps a spreadsheet of action items and due dates, and follows up with action-item owners), liaison (communicates with administrators on behalf of the team), researcher, snack-bringer, etc.

4. Share Your Ideas

Each team member (or pair of team members if you have a large team) should commit to setting his or her own agenda item before the beginning of the meeting and take responsibility for presenting it.

5. Make a Personal Connection

Check in at the beginning of each meeting about something positive -- put it on the agenda if you have to. Share the best part of your week, a funny moment with a student, a lesson you're proud of, etc. Make sure to celebrate your individual and group successes at every meeting. Teaching is challenging, and it's easy to focus on the negative -- make a concerted effort to share the positives, too.

Intervention: How to Change the Course of a Toxic Team

1. Don't Point Fingers

In Forbes, Kevin Kuse writes, "If you change yourself, you will change your team." If you realize that you are spinning your wheels on a toxic team, even if you aren't a team leader, you can take ownership for making it better, according to Kruse.

2. Avoid Gossip

It makes you look unprofessional, exacerbates the cycle of negativity and toxicity, and rarely solves problems.

3. Seek Help

Consult your department chair, team leader, or instructional coach for constructive advice and counsel -- they might be able to mediate, make suggestions, transform your collaborative model, and help your team get back on track.

4. Consider Alternatives

If the team truly can't collaborate face to face due to personality conflicts, consider asking your administration's permission to hold virtual meetings through email, Google docs, or an app like Padlet or Flow, where teachers write their responses to agenda items and share documents of best lessons, etc. It's not ideal, but it does provide for some communication and collaboration.

5. Be a Role Model

Contribute professionally in a way that makes you proud. Maintain your dignity. Even if you feel that others aren't stepping up, divorce yourself from an emotional response and be a good example for your students, other teachers, and administrators. It's easier said than done, but it may save your team and your professional reputation.

Improving the School Climate

As you consider all this, remember the bottom line -- there is a plethora of research out there indicating that when teachers focus on best practices, instructional strategies, data analysis, and reflection, student scores go up, the atmosphere of the school improves, and job satisfaction abounds. When teachers collaborate professionally, everyone wins.

How have cooperation and collaboration enhanced the climate at your school? Please share in the comments below.

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Deborah Wood's picture

Are you kidding me? Really? Newpoint Education Partners is one of the most (if not the most) toxic education services provider in the state of Florida. Guess you are forgetting about you latest troubles in the panhandle. Your teachers are certainly not treated as professionals or even recognized as people. This is evidenced by you not paying them the money they are due and running out of town.
Shame on you.

HeyTeach!'s picture

It's difficult to overcome a toxic environment when it's the "Specialist" and administrator making it that way. The PLCs at my school could be immensely helpful, but the incompetency of the Specialist (who leads the meetings) and the disdain we feel from our Principal (who sits in) do nothing but shut down conversations and make us feel incompetent.

We're professionals and deserve to be treated as such. When that happens, the toxicity will go away.

Deborah Wood's picture

I completely agree! Sadly, when Newpoint is involved that toxicity will never go away. There are many, many teachers out there that have been burned by them. Yet, they come here and pretend to agree with treating teachers as professionals and recognizing them for their strengths. The more professional you are when working for them the quicker they will terminate you and with their "at will" offer of employment letters there is absolutely no recourse. A quick google search of Newpoint Pensacola will offer up a plethora of reading that will show just how Newpoint Education Partners conduct business. And how they treat their teachers (and students).

WafaMiqdad's picture

that's absolutely true!! Competition between teachers is the worst kind of competition.....
Moreover I would like to add another point.....the reason why teachers compete or jealousies creep up, is because everybody want credit for their work. That is the reason in the outside word everything has to be referenced with an author and protected by copyright laws.....Obviously, this kind of enterprise does not exist in the world of education but we all are humans and this is an innate quality which is part of our personality. Thus, when we share our ideas, we should learn to give credit to its originator! This would not only reduce jealousies, but we will also learn to respect each other which would in turn improve relationships between the teachers and encourage further sharing of ideas!!

changeisgood's picture

That is EXACTLY the case in my situation and the reason I left. Today I begin a new journey. I am so relieved to be done with that toxic environment, the mess, the gossip, the backstabbing, etc.

**This was supposed to be a reply to HeyTeach's comment.**

Lee Anna Stirling's picture

Janet, Your guidelines for a positive climate among colleagues are important points and reminders. Respectful, collegial rapport among educators is essential for best learning climate for students. Students pick up on the respectfulness or not among faculty/staff, and among administrators and staff, and it affects students' own social/emotional growth. In addition, collaboration among peers supports best ideas for practices to emerge and be refined. Further, toxicity among peers or between supervisor and educator is a drain on those involved, which can lead to reduced effectiveness or excellent educators leaving. Glad you and commenters posted about this!

kharkiv's picture

yes, it's right because teachers are always will be a teachers and when teachers compete how can we win.

KF's picture

I found this topic very interesting and helpful. It is sad to say but many teachers do seem to be in competition with each other or stealing ideas. No one wants to help the other or give credit for certain things. If we all collaborated and put all of our ideas out on the table, it could be of great benefit to everyone that is involved.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I agree KF! I think the hardest part is getting started. Can you be the first one to put your ideas out there? You know what they say about "being the change you want to see." Good luck!

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