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Overcoming a Toxic Classroom Environment

Overcoming a Toxic Classroom Environment


Toxic Classroom Environment

When people picture a toxic classroom environment, they are probably thinking of one that is hostile and negative as far as atmosphere and behavior. That kind of toxic classroom environment is caused by a number of factors, including bullying, discrimination, and a lack of respect.

But the type of toxic classroom environment I experienced this year was literally made toxic by an infestation of skunks. However, the skunks did have the same negative impact on my students’ academic performance, mental health, and social development. Ironically, the way the administration handled the infestation caused a toxic work environment for me which caused me to leave at the end of the year.

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A Safe and Inclusive Environment

Last August, after returning to school, the students began to voice their concerns about my classroom’s toxic smell. In an attempt to create a more positive and comfortable classroom environment, I had the school put in an emergency work order to address the issue, but the problem wasn’t addressed until almost six months later.

Be Patient and Understanding

The smell was not overwhelming at first, but then more and more skunks moved in, and the classroom atmosphere became so toxic that the administration agreed to relocate us. We moved into an art room for a while, which was the most stable learning environment, but since that room was next to my original classroom, the toxic odor also seeped in there. Eventually, we had to change locations again and would be either in a computer lab or the library. Still, nothing was being done about the skunks.

Even Administration is Still Learning and Growing

During this time, I began to reach out to our teachers’ union to share my concerns about an unsafe classroom environment. The issue was addressed slowly and haphazardly despite my concerns and union interventions. Despite my frustration, I tried to be a positive role model for my students.

Help Administration See Their Own Potential

I was always respectful to the administration throughout the process of trying to get my classroom cleared out. I did reach out to them consistently, seeking updates, which I’m sure they saw as annoying or even harassment. The truth is, I could have been completely intolerant of the whole situation and made more of a stink (see what I did there), but I always tried to model the positive behavior that I wanted to see in my students.


Set Clear Expectations

Throughout this chaotic process, my principal came to evaluate me many times. I didn’t have a clue where I would be teaching from one day to the next because of all the times we needed t relocate from rooms that were picking up the toxic smell. The principal never set things up beforehand or asked if it was a convenient time for an observation.

Instead, her evaluations of me were entirely negative and felt like bullying. There was not one piece of positive feedback at any time or celebration of any small successes. Her write-ups focused on everything I was doing wrong, some of which were unavoidable given the constant room changes.

Promote Respect and Tolerance

During our post-observation meetings, I tried to explain that things would have gone more smoothly if the students had a little more stability. The principal wouldn’t hear it. She got quite defensive and said things like, “We have always provided a room for you to teach in. You need to be able to adapt!” Perhaps the most helpful bit of feedback was, “Why are you so frustrated? It’s not like I put the skunks in your room!”

principal yelling at teacher

Intervene When Bullying Occurs

I sought out a union representative at this time. A brand new teacher who had just been hired that year had taken over the role, and since he was new to the school and new to the position, some of his guidance was not always accurate. He advised me not to sign the evaluation write-ups she gave me, stating that I did not feel comfortable signing something that I felt misrepresented my ability and what actually occurred during the observation.

In my next meeting with the principal, I got written up for insubordination for not signing the evaluation write-ups. The union representative was in that meeting, which became an incredibly hostile environment. The principal raised her voice when speaking to us and was definitely not modeling respectful and positive behavior. I tried to stand up for myself and the rep. was trying to stand up for me as well, but it was a lost cause.

Coping Strategies

After all the stress and hostility, I decided to go to therapy because I was not coping with these issues in a healthy, positive way. Going to therapy was the best decision I ever made. Through therapy, I learned how to deal with my stress in healthier ways and view my principal in a more positive light. I wasn’t as angry with her anymore. And I decided I would work as hard as possible to prove her wrong about my abilities.

Essentials for Success

I signed up for every extra responsibility that was available. I arrived at school early and extended my tutoring hours. I stayed late and worked as hard as I could, planning fabulous, engaging lessons. I offered to help some of the teachers who were struggling with the new online classes we were implementing. And when the principal came to observe me in January, and I crushed it. Her feedback, at that time, was all positive.

Fulfilling Potential

February came, and I was still doing everything I could to show the principal what a great teacher I was. Then I got an email from the union president saying that I wasn’t being asked back for the following year.

I responded to him with confusion and frustration. I explained everything that had happened in as much detail as I could. His response was, “Wait. Your principal hasn’t said anything to you?” He couldn’t believe that I was finding out from the union first that I wasn’t being asked to return. The following week, the principal asked to meet with me and she told me I wasn’t being asked back but she didn’t even have the decency to give me a reason.


Give Me A Reason

Apparently, the administration does not legally have to provide a reason in California for non-renewal. According to the union president, they are actually encouraged by their legal teams not to say anything about why a teacher is not being asked back. I was told that probationary teachers have few rights and that I should get started searching for a new job.

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Leaving the Toxic Environment

Everything that happened turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I recently got offered a virtual teaching job, where I will be in my own positive learning environment. This is perfect because I am 19 weeks pregnant and don’t want to expose myself or my baby to that toxic work environment! I wonder if the skunks are still in my classroom. I have a feeling they are.

Feeling unsure about the teaching profession yourself? Check out this post about The Guilt and Stigma of Leaving Teaching or Unexpected Feelings When I Quit Teaching.

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This story was submitted to Teacher Misery by a contributor who wished to remain anonymous to protect their identity.

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