recognizing a toxic school environment

As a former classroom teacher and a parent, this post has been germinating for quite some time. It has been difficult to know how to put into words these thoughts and experiences as some of them are still quite painful to remember. But if it can help even one it will be well worth the effort.

For many years (more than 20) I was a classroom teacher, mostly in private Montessori settings. In my years as a young mother and teacher my family was very financially stressed and my job was the mainstay of our finances. So when part of my job in a new school entailed half price tuition for my boys it seemed like a god send. And it was in some ways, but not without significant cost.

It became apparent soon after my arrival that something was different about this environment. There seemed to be an expectation that teachers would not only recognize anything amiss with students, but diagnose the root cause and find a solution. This process came with a good deal of moralizing and smug theories concerning the child and or parents. And woe betide the parent who questioned the school authority on their child.

As a young teacher, this was heady stuff. Parents were actually listening when I talked and acting on my advice. Lord, have mercy. Although some of the advice I gave was sound, some of it was likely misguided at best. I did my research, but I was not a trained psychologist or diagnostician. I would have done well to focus all my efforts on facilitating an engaging learning environment and connecting to my students.

It wasn’t long before the spotlight turned onto one of my own children and myself. It was excruciating , both for my child and for me. have often wondered what would have happened if I had just screamed the NOOOOOOOOOOO! that was bursting to get out when I was given worst case scenarios about my child that I had real doubts about.

When I balked at some of what was being said and suggested for remediation, I was told that I would be fired if I did not comply. Unfortunately, I did not believe enough in myself to trust my instincts. And as I mentioned earlier, my paycheck was keeping us from abject poverty. Fear coupled with the fact that I had no working boundaries kept me from advocating for my child, to my shame and I believe his deep wounding.

I have asked for his forgiveness for this and other flawed parenting efforts. But it still hurts thinking about how I let strangers make decisions that would affect us for many years.

My advice for parents is this: If your child’s teacher or any school official gives you a theory about your child that seems off to you, ASK QUESTIONS. Do not allow anyone to bully you into compliance with ill formed speculations. Do your research. Connect with your child first and foremost and be their advocate.

If you are a teacher, don’t be tempted to play all the roles. It can be intoxicating to be the voice of authority as I know from experience. Ask questions if you suspect there really is an issue. Make careful OBJECTIVE observations and treat them as such. Collaborate with the family. If you suspect abuse, work with HEALTHY professionals to problem solve. It is important, though, not to make assumptions that might cause further harm. It is a hard balancing act, I know, and I do not envy your task.

In healing and hope,


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