When Life Gives You Lemons: Can a Toxic Workplace Be Good for You?

In my last post, Are You Moving Away or Toward?, I shared a portion of a post I’d written several months ago about leaving my teaching position.  As it did then, this post once again touched a nerve with several people, who contacted me to say how they related to its message.  I wanted to expand on what I learned from that experience.

If you read my last post, you know that I recently left a position that was not a good fit for me in certain respects.  To be clear, there were other aspects of the job that I loved, namely the high school students I was teaching.  They were what got me through the day, more often than not.  To quote Dickens, it was the best of times and the worst of times.  This was no accident.

As I began to feel more and more alienated from the school’s administration and direction, the more I began to focus less on pleasing them and more on being accountable to my students – they were my “customers”, after all.  I say being accountable rather than pleasing them because, as we all know, conscientious teachers don’t strive to be popular with students (often what makes teachers popular doesn’t necessarily make them good teachers – easy grades, overly lax discipline policies, etc.)  Rather, I tried to be the best teacher that I could be in all respects:  in the way that I prepared my lessons, carried them out, graded students and managed the classroom.  Now that I was no longer directed by what I perceived my supervisor wanted, I became genuinely curious about how my students learned best.  Though I’ve always tried new techniques as a teacher, I had never before spent so much time soliciting feedback from my students about how they learned.

The result was that my students felt they had a stake in the decision-making process.  It wasn’t just my classroom, it was theirs.  I honestly don’t know if I would have been motivated to make these discoveries or focus so intently on my students if it had been smooth sailing with the administration all along.

Ironically, though my principal did not appreciate my vocal critiques of school policy, he, too, noticed that good things were happening in our classroom, and complimented me on the successes we’d had.  We do our best when we seek to please ourselves, guided by that which is for the greater good of all.

This created an ethical dilemma for me:  while I was frustrated by being part of a system I did not support philosophically, I was enjoying my students more than ever.  I had heard many teachers say that they felt they could do the most good, even in a dysfunctional system, by remaining in and controlling what they could in their own classrooms.  Now I began to question whether that was still true for me.

Though I was proud of our accomplishments in the classroom, I was not always proud of the way I handled my frustration with school policy.  Though it was difficult, when I finally succeeded in viewing the situation from my principal’s standpoint, I realized that he must be equally frustrated with me for what I think he perceived as an open threat to his mission.  When I realized this, it was much easier not to take his complaints personally.  We had a very deep discussion that, though painful, brought us to a basic understanding of each other’s views and an agreement to disagree.  This was the moment that I realized I owed it not only to myself, but to him, to leave.  I learned that if you can’t support your organization’s mission wholeheartedly, you probably need to move on.   I grappled with the feeling that I was abandoning my students, but finally decided that, for my own mental health and the sake of my family, it was best to leave.  I could lead by example:  stand up for what you believe, even if it requires sacrifice.

If you, too, find that you are in a toxic work environment, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What can I learn from this situation?
  • What would I do differently if I were in my supervisor’s position?
  • Which of my reactions to the situation have been helpful and which have been harmful?
  • What actions can I take to relax and be productive in my current situation?
  • Is my current situation manageable or do I need to make a change?

Answering these questions honestly to yourself can be the first step in making lemonade from lemons.


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