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Toxic classroom culture? Lessons from the Great Resignation

sue_frantz
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I have been fascinated by the Great Resignation—the mass of people who have left their jobs starting when the COVID-19 pandemic began in spring of 2020 and is continuing as I write in summer of 2022. The number one predictor of why people are leaving their jobs? Toxic work culture (Sull, Sull, & Zweig, 2022). And it’s not even close. “A toxic culture is 10.4 times more likely to contribute to attrition than compensation.” The next closest is “job insecurity and reorganization,” and it’s only 3.5 times more likely to contribute than pay. Pay does not even make the top five reasons.

Now the next challenge: determining what makes a work culture toxic. Researchers did a language analysis of employee Glassdoor reviews. Of the negative reviews, the comments fell into five categories: disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive (Sull, Sull, Cipolli, et al., 2022).

Unsurprisingly, I found myself looking at these toxic work culture components through a classroom lens. If the class has a toxic culture, some students will stick it out. Classes, by their nature, are time-limited. When the term ends, the class ends. Other students may decide it is just not worth it and withdraw. Entire departments may have a toxic culture, and students may opt to change majors altogether to escape to a better space. For the purpose of this post, let’s focus on our classes and instructors as classroom leaders.

Disrespect. This has the biggest impact on how employees rate their employer’s culture (Sull, Sull, Cipolli, et al., 2022). When an instructor has intense dislike for a student, disrespect for the instructor is a common reason why (Boysen et al., 2020). For students, feeling disrespected by instructors contributes to low subjective well-being (Small et al., 2019). As instructors, one place we can start showing and modeling respect for our students is in our syllabi. It is all too easy to add content to our syllabus with that one student in mind. Instead, write for the rest of your students. Do your late assignment policy and academic dishonesty statements read like accusations? Ask a trusted family member or friend to read your syllabus. Would they want to take your class?

Abusive. This takes disrespect to another level. “The most frequently mentioned hostile behaviors in our sample are bullying, yelling, or shouting at employees, belittling or demeaning subordinates, verbally abusing people, and condescending or talking down to employees” (Sull, Sull, Cipolli, et al., 2022). If we replace the word “employees” with “students,” it is easy to picture a class we would not want to be part of.

Noninclusiveness. A toxic work culture is fostered when members of historically marginalized groups feel marginalized by their employer (Sull, Sull, Cipolli, et al., 2022). Their allies notice it, too. Managers who favor some employees over others or the existence of cliques are included in the noninclusiveness category. As instructors, we need to ensure all of our students feel like they can be heard. Voting systems are a way to foster feelings of inclusion. Ensuring that our textbooks and our presentation slides represent everyone—in photos and names—can help students feel like they belong. When students say or do things in our class that contribute to noninclusiveness, it is our responsibility as instructors to speak up. Having course policies that apply to everyone and do not require instructor judgement can also help. For example, allow everyone to submit work up to 24 hours late or allow up to three assignments to be submitted up to a week late. This eliminates the instructor from having to decide if a child’s rescheduled soccer match is a good enough reason to allow the parent—your student—to submit late work. These are just a few examples. Books have been written on how to foster inclusiveness.

Cutthroat. Social loafing is not uncommon in the workplace, but, interestingly, it is not perceived as a contributor to a toxic work culture. Toxicity happens when coworkers actively undermine and sabotage each other (Sull, Sull, Cipolli, et al., 2022). Encouraging student cooperation is much better for class culture than encouraging student competition, especially for first-generation college students (Canning et al., 2020). The practice of curving grades—where, say, the top 10% of grades earn As, the next 15% earn Bs, the next 50% earn Cs, the next 15% earn Ds, and the last 10% earn Fs, regardless of the actual number of points earned in the course—may result in students sabotaging others. If a student who earns 85% can fail the course if everyone else in the class earns above 85%, it is not hard to see how this course policy would encourage students to undermine everyone else.

Unethical. This category includes employees and the employer engaging in unethical behavior, being dishonest, and lacking regulatory compliance (Sull, Sull, Cipolli, et al., 2022). In a class setting, unethical behavior may include allowing students to submit work late when they ask even though the syllabus late assignment policy clearly states that late work will not be accepted. Outright lying to students? Also not okay.

If you teach long enough, you will have a class that will go sideways. Sometimes all we can do is mitigate the damage and get to the end of the term. For instructors who frequently have classes go sideways, it is time to take a close look at how the instructor’s behavior or class policies may be contributing to the class culture.

 

References

 

Boysen, G. A., Isaacs, R. A., Chicosky, R. L., & Delmore, E. E. (2020). Intense dislike of students: Frequency, causes, effects, and management among college teachers. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000200

Canning, E. A., LaCosse, J., Kroeper, K. M., & Murphy, M. C. (2020). Feeling like an imposter: The effect of perceived classroom competition on the daily psychological experiences of first-generation college students. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(5), 647–657. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550619882032

Small, S. P., English, D., Moran, G., Grainger, P., & Cashin, G. (2019). “Mutual respect would be a good starting point:” Students’ perspectives on incivility in nursing education. Canadian Journal of Nursing Research, 51(3), 133–144. https://doi.org/10.1177/0844562118821573

Sull, D., Sull, C., Cipolli, W., & Brighenti, C. (2022, March 16). Why every leader needs to worry about toxic culture. MIT Sloan Management Review. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/why-every-leader-needs-to-worry-about-toxic-culture/

Sull, D., Sull, C., & Zweig, B. (2022, January 11). Toxic culture is driving the Great Resignation. MIT Sloan Management Review. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/toxic-culture-is-driving-the-great-resignation/

 

 

 

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.