Separating from a Toxic Work Environment

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Sit. Down.” I was surprised at the dangerous steeliness of my 23-year-old, usually-girlish voice, as if I were hearing the tone emanate from outside of my own body. But somehow I already knew that I was helpless.  The classroom was eerily silent - my other 39 high school students, sprawling in desk-less chairs in my overcrowded space, collectively tensed.

It was only my second month of teaching in a large, urban high school – although it was my “first fight,” other teachers later called it (as if I had somehow been initiated), I had felt the electric current of racial tension and class conflict crackling beneath the surface since the first day of school. Finally, the friction had erupted in an explosion of violence because a student misspoke in a way that I still don’t fully understand. 

I remember the graphic ordeal as if it were a dream sequence in slow motion. Afterwards, as I watched the security guards haul away the struggling students and the custodians disinfect my blood-spattered floor, I found myself ruminating on my inability to create significant change. “How do you bring positivity and empowerment to a completely dysfunctional situation?”

In any profession, toxic work environments can take root. Unfortunately, well-meaning people can get absorbed into overworking and codependency in an effort to make up the difference between reality and ideals. I should know; I was one of those people. What should you ask yourself if you are caught in the middle of this frustrating work dilemma?

You may not be cleaning blood off the floor, but you may be suffering from questionable company ethics, lack of opportunity, or noxious co-workers. Here are three evaluative questions that you can ask yourself in order to decide if it is time to move on to different employment, or if the job has potential for transformation:

  • Do you have the right tools? 

When the institution consistently does not provide you with resources and does not respond to requests for tangible help, that is a sign that your goals may not be in alignment with your institution’s values. When I was in this situation, I thought that my innate skills and perseverance would bridge the resource gap. I burned out.  

  • Do you have a team? 

 “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.” When I was inspired by Margaret Mead’s timeless words to work harder, I overlooked the fact that I needed a team of “thoughtful, committed” people. Instead, I had a tough, self-reliant attitude that was not conducive to authentic transformation. I tried to do it alone, and my efforts were not realistic.

  • Does anyone else (besides you) want change? 

In this same vein, if the system as a whole does not think that change is needed, your attempts to have an impact will most likely be rebuffed. In my inner-city high school, it took me months to realize that my administration’s priorities were vastly different from my idealistic goals. They were more interested in maintaining the status quo in my classroom than in the dramatic improvement that I sought. 

By the end of that first year, I knew the answer to those questions for myself. While I did not meet my goals of radical change, the ultimate opportunity was not for professional growth, but for personal transformation instead. 

I had finally gained the self-respect and humility to admit that I, as an individual, was not big enough to make an impact on a failing system, and that I owed it to myself to find a professional environment that was in alignment with my values. I made the healthy (but difficult) choice to put in my resignation when the year was over. I moved on.

It took almost a year for me to clear the emotional fog, however, that had accompanied that teaching position. The fear that clung to me like a burr afterwards was that I had been wrong in abandoning good work, and that if I had stayed longer, I could have made a difference in ailing classrooms.

You may feel the same way if you are hesitating to leave a dysfunctional work environment – you may have critics, both internal and external, that pressure you to change yourself in order to make a situation “work,” because you have so much to offer. 

These doubts haunted me, until one day I realized that the truth of the matter was captured in the image of that violent fight. A stray word had landed like a spark on tinder, and we were all carried along in the explosion that was built on fuel much deeper than the surface on which we lived our daily lives – the surface that I could only scratch with my efforts. I was as helpless as the students that day.

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