How To Recognize a Toxic School Culture Before You Get the Job

Avoid the extra stress and trauma.

How to Recognize a Toxic School Culture Before You Get the Job

If there’s one thing that my time in teaching has taught me, it’s that the culture of a school can make you love or loathe your job. Whenever you are looking for a new teaching position, it’s critical to know how to spot and avoid a toxic school culture. A toxic school culture does not discriminate. It takes over wealthy schools, poor schools, city schools, and country schools. Here are toxic school culture indicators to look for:

Strained relationships

It’s very difficult to work in a school where people don’t get along or understand each other. Once I was called in to see the principal. I was told I had had an unprofessional conversation in the staff room. I couldn’t imagine what my principal was talking about. At first I thought she had mistaken me for someone else. Turns out, I had asked my colleagues for behavior management advice. As there had been student teachers in the staff room at the time, I was told I was promoting a negative impression of the school. Be on the lookout for teachers who talk poorly of other teachers or their principal. It can be a red flag for what’s to come.

An absence of low-stakes risk-taking

Students and teachers who reach out to help each other and initiate conversations feel at home in their environment. When on an interview, notice the noise around you. Pay attention to the environment. Are staff chatting to each other and asking questions? Do children come into the office and ask staff members for help? Schools with a positive school culture feel like places where all people are welcome and have a sense of belonging. It’s a palpable feeling.


No clear sense of purpose

Look around to see if there is a mission or vision statement in the front office as well as in classrooms. Does it seem like children understand the guiding principles? Are they moving about the room with purpose or waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do? Positive school cultures offer people a chance to be themselves and live purposeful lives where they know what is expected of them.

Punitive behavior management


When you are asked if you have any questions, offer up a couple of scenarios and ask how most teachers might manage them. For example: If a child is angry and tips over a chair, how might that situation be handled? Listen carefully to the response, noting if it is student- and learning-focused or behavior punishment. Schools with a positive school culture will be human centered rather than rule driven .

An absence of honest conversation

Ask how staff disagreements with policy are discussed and handled. You’ll want to hear teachers and administrators talk about an open dialogue where people are heard. Since you’re asking, you might also inquire about how parent requests are managed. If everyone looks around at each other and rolls their eyes or laughs, consider it a red flag.

Lack of trust

How are observations, walk-throughs, and lesson plans managed? Do they take place at all and if so how often? It’s okay for an administrator to want to understand the general work that’s taking place each week, but you don’t want a micromanager who won’t let you be a professional teacher. Admins should be leading and supporting you to support the students, not trying to catch you doing something wrong.

No diversity among the staff

Don’t just take a cursory look around. Ask about the diversity represented in the student body and in the staff. If there are no women or people of color in leadership, you have to question why.

There’s a lot to consider as you look for a teaching position, but it takes the same amount of work to identify a toxic school culture as it does to find a positive one. It’s worth the effort to find the school environment you can be proud of and where you’ll be a productive, happy member of the staff.

Do you have any thoughts on how you can recognize a toxic school culture during the interview process? Come and share them in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, interview questions every teacher should know how to answer.

How to Recognize a Toxic School Culture Before You Get the Job