School culture

Everybody knows that teachers deal with kids all day.  That’s the very purpose of the profession:  To interact with students so they learn.

However, one thing that new teachers rarely consider is that they also have to interact with other people.  We all get so hung up on what lesson we’ll teach and what equipment we need for the day that we don’t remember that our whole job consists of being social and outgoing.

Additionally, every school has its own culture that is maintained by the people who have been a part of it for years.  Whether you like it or not, this culture will play a large role in shaping the kind of teacher you’ll be.

What does “school culture” refer to?

Every school in the world is different.  If you’ve taught someplace for a long time and move to a different school, you’ll find that many of the things you’ve taken for granted are no longer valid.  These changes typically aren’t good or bad – just different.  Let’s examine some of the things that a school culture affects:

  • Interactions with students:  If you’re anything like me, you’re primarily interested in treating the students with respect.  However, what is considered respectful may change from school to school, and deviating from this may cause other teachers to think of you as an oddball.  Some schools have very formal interactions, in which teachers dress in “office clothes” and students are allowed access to teachers only during set office hours. Other “progressive” schools may involve students referring to their teachers by their first names.  Neither of these is necessarily bad – I’ve seen them both work in the past – but they may not match your personality.
  • Interactions with parents:  Again, respect is key.  However, what constitutes respect may also change from school to school.  In some private schools, it’s considered respectful for parents to speak to teachers as equals and to give suggestions about how teaching should be done.  At public schools, it’s more common for the teacher to be in charge of instruction and for parents to simply be aware of what’s happening.  Again, neither of these is wrong, but you should know which is true before starting your job.
  • Interactions with coworkers.  In many schools, your coworkers will lend a hand and do what they can to help you fit in.  Unfortunately, in other locations you may find that the senior teachers are seen as superior to younger teachers, in which case they may try to shove you around.  In other cases, the senior teachers will honestly try to help, but offer “suggestions” that don’t match your teaching style.  Please note that this phenomenon isn’t limited to teachers – it’s something everybody deals with as part of being in the workforce.
  • Interactions with administrators.  I’ve taught in schools where the administration always backed me up and taught in schools where I was left hanging on my own.  My experience has generally been that public school administrators are more supportive, but I know that many private school teachers had an experience different than mine. Honestly, you’ll never know what your administrators are like until you work for them, and even the most annoying administrators will see reason if it’s pointed out in the right way.  Usually.

In short, the culture of a school involves everything having to do with interpersonal interactions.  Which is, for a teacher, everything.

A framework for dealing with a problematic school culture:

Once you’ve determined what your school is like from a social interaction standpoint, it’s time to figure out how to deal with it.  I don’t want to make you too nervous:  This is usually an easy process, because most schools are fundamentally healthy.  However, what do you do if your school’s culture isn’t healthy and you have to deal with it?  Here’s are some general guidelines for making positive changes:

  • Objectively assess the difficulties you’re having with the school culture.  For many new teachers, the problems stem from the fact that the existing teachers and administrators have been out there actually teaching, while you’ve spent most of your time learning pedagogical theories.  Before flying off the handle, make sure that it’s the school that’s the problem and not you.
  • Take action.  If you’re not happy, you’ll need to do something to make yourself happy – an unhappy teacher is unlikely to do a good job in the classroom, and making yourself miserable doesn’t do anybody any good.
  • Objectively assess the outcome of your action.  Was the change positive?  Was it negative?  Was there no change at all?  Keep in mind that doing things differently will necessarily cause other people to think of you differently – your job is to figure out what this change is.

How you work through these steps will depend on the specific problem you’re having.  Let’s go into this a little deeper…

Dealing with specific problems

At this point, you’ve decided that things aren’t right.  Let’s look at some of the approaches that might bring success (and some that might not):

The other teachers boss you around

The scenario:  Mrs. Smith is acting like a butthead and keeps telling you what to do in the classroom.  No matter what you say to her, she keeps insisting that she’s right and you’re an idiot.

How to deal with this:

  • The smiling fool:  The best way I’ve found to deal with this is to play the smiling fool when dealing with people like this.  Listen carefully to their suggestions, nod and smile at the right times, and apologize a lot.  Then go back to doing whatever you want once you’re in your classroom.  The best thing about being a teacher is that you’re in complete charge in your classroom and don’t have to do anything you feel is wrong.
  • The idea person:  Try to convince other teachers that your ideas are better and deserve a shot.  If you go this route, expect to fail nearly every time you do this.  However, if you keep up mild pressure over a period of months and years, eventually you’ll gain respect and they’ll start to listen.
  • The rebel:  Just tell them they’re dumb and do whatever you want.  This is like the smiling fool, except that everybody ends up hating your guts and making your life hell. In other words, it’s a very bad idea to take this approach.

Your administration doesn’t back you up

What happens when students cause trouble?  At most schools, the teachers hand out some kind of punishment, the students deal with it, and everybody goes back to normal. However, sometimes things go less well and the parents jump over your head and demand the administrators reverse everything you’ve said.

How to deal with this:

  • The reasoner:  Have a conference with all interested parties and explain what happened.  If you have good proof that your story is correct (and you should before you start down this path), your administrator and parent will understand that you did the right thing.  Now, this doesn’t mean that they’ll actually do the right thing – only that they won’t be so inclined to mess with you in the future.
  • The fighter:  Demand that your punishment be reinstated.  This will not work:  Nobody likes being given orders, and administrators usually prefer to appease an influential parent than a bratty teacher.
  • The shrugger:  Shrug and go on teaching.  From a sanity standpoint, this is by far the best option.  However, if you’re the type of person who always needs everything right “on principle”, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to live with this.

The parents boss you around

Every teacher has cases where a parent tries to bully you into doing what they want. How this plays out depends exactly on you, as parents will only do this in cases where they know they need you to do what they want.  If they had the power to force their will, they would already have done so.

The biggest rule, however, is that you should never, ever allow the parent to push you around.  If the parent yells on the phone, tell him you’ll call tomorrow and end the call.  If the parent sends you a mean email, let your administrator deal with it.  If the parent shows up at your school and corrals you in your classroom, call security (I actually did this one time – he was very surprised).  You do not work for the parents and they have absolutely no right to treat you poorly.  You work for the state and have the job of educating kids, and the state expects you to use your judgement to do the right thing.  Big difference.

The other big thing:  Never, ever, lose your temper.  It’s not good for your mental health and it will always hurt your case.  Even if you want to reach across a table and tear the parent’s nose off, you need to keep smiling.

How to handle the bullying parent:

  • Step 0:  Document everything.  What time did the call take place, what you talked about, demeanor, any choice phrases, end time of call.  This is your ultimate defense against future disagreements.
  • Step 1:  Assess whether the parent is a jerk or just having a bad day.  If their boss just screamed at them, they were stuck in traffic, and the vending machine took their money, it may be the case that their poor behavior is the result of frustration rather than any problems with what you’ve done.  For this reason, any time a parent takes a negative tone with you, politely suggest that you cut off the conversation and continue at a later time.
  • Step 2:  Take a good step back and figure out if the parent is right.  You’re not infallible, and making mistakes is a part of life.  If you suddenly realize that you screwed something up, a genuine “I’m sorry, I screwed that up,” will always make things right. After all, it’s impossible for a parent to argue with the outcome if you admit they were right, and it’s impossible for a parent to accuse you of being a bad teacher if you admit that you make mistakes and are capable of changing your mind.  When dealing with anybody in a school, it’s never the wrong thing to tell the complete truth all the time.
  • Step 2:  If the parent is truly intractable (i.e. won’t be civil, keeps bugging you), set up a conference where at least one other person will be present.  This usually calms the parent down and makes rational conversation more simple.  Make sure you have every bit of evidence ready to go so when the parent starts insisting you’re wrong you can break out evidence to the contrary.
  • Step 3:  If that doesn’t work, let your administrator deal with it.  That’s what they’re there for, and whatever they decide, you won’t look like a pushover.


I know you’re all aware that everybody has the legal right to work without harassment from the people around them.  However, before we can discuss your options, it’s best to examine the things that constitute harassment.

“Hostile work environment” is frequently used to describe harassment, and refers to discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and all that other stuff you can look up on Wikipedia.  What this term doesn’t refer to is an environment that’s hostile because somebody picks on you and calls you names.  In the case of harassment, the other person has to be abusing you because you’re a member of a protected group.

If you’re being hassled because of your gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical limitations, or anything else that is legally-protected, you are being harassed.  Your employer has the legal obligation to fix this.  However, there’s another thing to consider: The intent of the person making the harassing statement.

If you wear a turban, a coworker may ask you why.  If you answer that you’re Sikh, they may ask what that means.  These questions may be annoying to you, but the person asking them isn’t out to make your life hard.  They just want to know what’s with your hat.  In other words, make sure that people are trying to harass you before escalating. Additionally, if somebody is trying to harass you, your first step should be to tell them to knock it off.

Of course, if you’re not sure about what to do, speak to the HR person for your school. They’ll tell you about your legal rights and obligations, as well as deal with the harasser directly.  Use HR:  That’s what they’re there for.

Types of workplace harassment:

  • Sexual harassment:  If somebody wants to take you to coffee, they’re not sexually harassing you.  If somebody makes an awkward “blonde” joke, they may or may not be harassing you.  There’s a fine line between being a stalker/pervert/rapist and being an awkward nerd, so make sure somebody’s really discriminating against you before taking this further.
  • Religious harassment:  If somebody asks why you wear a hijab, they’re probably just curious.  If you are wearing a hijab at a conservative Christian school, don’t be surprised if it gets you some looks the first few weeks.  If another teacher asks about your religion, or tries to share theirs with you, that’s not harassment either.  It’s when this sort of thing moves from “That’s unusual – I’d like to learn more” to “Arab asshole” that it becomes harassment.
  • Harassment based on sexual orientation:  There’s really no reason this should be discussed in a school, as the sex lives of teachers should be off-limits to everybody. The usual things above apply to this sort of harassment (make sure it’s really harassment, tell them to stop), but there’s an added thing to consider:  If you report this, will you be fired?  It’s incredibly unfortunate, but every employer has ways of making employees disappear, and if the school won’t tolerate homosexuals, you may very well find yourself out of a job.
  • Harassment based on ethnicity:  With America being as multicultural as it is, this sort of harassment is much less common than it used to be.  Well, it’s not as obvious, anyway. Whereas racial slurs used to be common, ethnic discrimination now occurs in a thousand subtle ways.  The problem in making this determination, however, is that some people may be racists and other people may say racist things because they didn’t know it was a slur in the first place.  Harassment based on one’s ancestry should never be tolerated, but make certain that the 87-year-old biology teacher didn’t call you “my boy” because he calls all young men “my boy” before suing.


Criminal behavior

It’s not at all common, but it’s very occasionally the case that a coworker, administrator, or parent commits a criminal act in your presence.  If this happens, go to the police.  Not the school administrators or HR.  The police.


The students show disrespect for you

Normally, students show disrespect for teachers because the teachers have, for one reason or another, done something to warrant this disrespect in their eyes.  Given the volatile nature of the adolescent mind, this can be anything from your personality, to your clothes, to your funny name, to the fact that you haven’t yet punished the kid who throws spitballs. All teachers have to deal with discipline issues, and this falls firmly under the category of “figure it out for yourself.”

There are, however, some cases where the students are actually encouraged to show disrespect toward you.  The culprits:  Parents.  If you ask parents whether they want their kids to be functioning members of society, they’d look at you as if you were insane. However, there are a lot of parents who hear stories from their kids about teachers and say things like, “I know, teachers can be real ballbusters.”  Or who tell the kids about every annoying thing they’ve ever heard about the school.  Or who laugh about the lazy teachers who keep demanding more tax dollars.  These parents, while undoubtedly hoping that their kids will benefit from their education, are describing teachers as part of the problem, rather than as part of the solution.  The kids hear this and behave accordingly.

So, how do you handle this?  You show everybody that you’re part of the solution.  If a student hears from their dad that teachers are idiots and then comes into class to find that the teacher is interesting and engaging, the lesson they’ve learned will start to unlearn. Reaching this child requires only that you do your job to the best of your ability.  The kids are bright and will eventually come around.

The big wrap-up:  Can you survive a negative school culture?

Maybe.  It depends on the specific school culture and depends on how flexible you want to be on the issue.

  • Let’s say that you enter a school and the more experienced teachers ignore your suggestions.  You’re not going to get them to pay attention to you anytime soon, but over time they’ll come to respect you.  Whether you stay or not will depend on whether you can wait it out.
  • If you’re a female teacher whose breasts are intently observed by her administrator, what do you do?  Whether you stay or not depends on whether you can tolerate being a human pin-up poster as you get to school.
  • Maybe you’re a homosexual teacher who keeps having gay jokes thrown his or her way. Whether you stay or not depends on whether you can handle having your sexual orientation attacked.

In other words, there’s no single answer.  If you have thick skin, you can usually fit in anywhere.  However, most of us don’t want to deal with that kind of stress on a continual basis, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to find greener pastures.  To be happy, you need to be respected by the parents, your coworkers, the administrators, and your students.

I wish I could tell you to “fight the good fight” and stamp out the negative aspects of your school culture, but it’s not that simple.  Most people don’t have the energy to do a good job in the classroom and fight a protracted battle against their school.  This requires a lot of effort, a lot of internal strength, and a lot of time.  And when you’re done, you may be in worse shape than when you started.

Follow your conscience.  If you’ve read this far, you probably already know what you should do and are just waiting for me to give you the thumbs up.  Well, here it is:  Do what’s right for you.



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