The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

How to deal with negative teachers

Actively cultivating positive emotions is essential in a school environment. But how do you work with staff who don’t look on the bright side of life? John Dabell discusses.

Schools can be stressful places that make Frankensteins of us all and breed negative thinking and toxicity. When left unchecked, the moans and groans can become embedded in a school’s culture and quickly become part of the fabric. This negativity and stress can also be contagious and passed onto children so it needs to be addressed quickly.    

One of the habits of effective teachers is being a positive force around the place; positive pedagogues make an enormous difference to the wellbeing of their school.

But it is an unfortunate fact of life that not everyone is happy. Some teachers are not great adverts for teaching and make lousy recruitment ambassadors because they’ve lost that lovin’ feeling. For various reasons, they have become jaded, bitter, angry and frustrated and they are energy vacuums.

No one wants to work in a toxic environment and it might be tempting to allow teachers who have lost their mojo to just fizzle out, but this would be reckless and irresponsible. They have a lot to give. School teams must support each other and that means helping colleagues to repair, rejuvenate and find their form again.

Teachers who display negative behaviours have had their wellbeing hijacked. They had zing and buzz once and need help to get it back. Sometimes all they need is a gentle nudge to find their teaching passion again. Others require more drastic interventions, careful mentoring and stacks of support.

‘We first’

If you have one or two members of staff chipping away and always complaining, it can drag a place down as they can normally recruit new members quite quickly. 

The determination and tenacity to never give in to negativity is key and changing our communication style can make a huge difference to the cultural identity of a school. ‘We first’ is important because the focus is on everyone and not just the pupils. Everyone matters and everyone has to participate, contribute, and learn in an atmosphere of ‘us’ and ‘can do’.

Forget the usual gripes and focus on the good in the next staff meeting. Give staff the following question to answer.

‘Recall an example of inspiring behaviour that you witnessed by a colleague. Describe the situation and its impact on you, the team, and pupils.’

As a team, listen to what each member of staff says. Get positivity on the agenda and never let it get away. Happiness loves company – persistent complainers who vent their spleen are not welcome.

Creating a healthy collective focus, a collaborative culture and cultivating accountability are key. The DNA of a school can be seriously damaged by those who do not invest in collaboration and relationships.

Yoga is not the answer

Why someone behaves negatively can be a complex cocktail of personal and professional issues. On a professional level, the underlying causes of poor teacher wellbeing are usually related to high workload and stress.

School leaders might attempt to support their staff with cakes in the staffroom, mindfulness activities and yoga sessions but as Mark Esner (2019) says in his book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, ‘These kinds of activities might be the icing on the cake, but if the sponge is rotten, the icing does little to make it more appealing.’

If school leaders can address workload issues, such as marking and meetings, and help teachers manage their time then they might be able to enjoy some lunchtime samba.

As Ross McGill (2019) says in his book, Just Great Teaching, ‘To get the best out of teachers, we must strip teaching back down to its basics to allow our staff to focus on the areas of their job that really make a difference.’  

Teachers who display negative behaviours have had their wellbeing hijacked. They had zing and buzz once and need help to get it back

No moaning

Schools have 100’s of policies, covering every aspect of school life but there is one important policy missing. This policy is essential and one policy that will benefit staff and students, promote health and wellbeing, and improve the whole school system: a ‘No negativity policy’.

The customs, norms, standards, and behaviours of a school define its character and they must reflect positivity. If the atmosphere of a school is positive, then people like being there and want to be there.

Of course we are entitled to voice how we feel but not as gossip, tittle-tattle, back-biting and petty comments. A place can become toxic very quickly if things are said and passed off as ‘pressure’ or the ‘end of term’. Having a policy that says our school is a no moan zone is crucial because without one we aren’t being ‘professional’.

A ‘No negativity policy’ makes a school a happier place by making sure that people think twice about what they are saying and the impact it can have. It should incorporate challenge so that when people start to complain, they follow a process by speaking to someone confidentially about their concerns and not out in the open in a staffroom or playground.

The school’s code of conduct also relates to staff and a good one will say that staff should seek support from their line manager about positive action. If you are the person complaining all the time then be self-aware and check your own behaviour and language. Look for the good things that you and your school are doing and speak about these instead.

Find your fizz

One of my favourite resources to conveniently leave in the staffroom is Of Teaching, Learning and Sherbet Lemons by Nina Jackson.

This book is packed with practical advice and is a great reminder of what teaching and learning means. It encourages us to press pause and think about what we would miss if we weren’t teaching. It encourages us to reflect on who we are and what amazing value teaching adds to our lives.

We can point colleagues in the direction of resources that might help but sometimes a school can only do much. They may need to access professional help and counselling. The Education Support Partnership offers a free 24/7 helpline service to help you find a way forward.

And finally...

Sometimes, negative teachers come to realise that they are just in the ‘wrong’ school for them. It can be a horrible experience to realise you just don’t belong but making positive steps to get out is sometimes the best option to get you back to being that positive teacher again.

Sometimes though, it might be a case of moving temporarily and teaching elsewhere for a short while. Outward looking schools share staff by allowing colleagues to swap classrooms. This pushes people out of their comfort zones and helps teachers gain new perspectives on their own school.  

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