July 19, 2024


Education, What Else?

Avoiding a Toxic Work Environment: Take Control of the Interview

6 min read
Avoiding a Toxic Work Environment: Take Control of the Interview

Guest Writer: Jess Lyons

As spring rolls along and the end of another school year is on the horizon, many educators sit at an interview table. New teachers begin applying for that first teaching job, and veteran teachers look for ways to extend their expertise. 

There is no denying that the stakes are high during an interview. A successful interview can lead to an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of countless students. In contrast, a poor interview can result in missed career opportunities. 

But the prospective employer should not be the only person doing the evaluation.

Moving toward a position that would allow me more opportunities to make a more significant difference, I have sat through many interviews, especially in the last few years. Each interview taught me something about myself and the place I was applying to work. I learned quickly during these interviews that not every job I applied for or ended up offered was the most suitable job for me. 

Just because it looks like the job you SHOULD have does not necessarily mean it is the job you TAKE. 

Remember, a job interview is not one-sided. Rosemary Haefner, vice president of Human Resources at CareerBuilder, reminds us, “You are interviewing the employer just as much as that employer is interviewing you. Asking questions can give you a better sense of the company’s…culture, … leadership style, and whether that organization is the right fit for you.”

But I get it. Being caught up in the excitement is easy when preparing for an interview. The idea of a new opportunity quickly clouds the mind, and you forget to pay attention to warning signs that could suggest potential issues with the school or position. The problem with this clouding is that you might end up “feeling like you’ve been sold a false bill of goods” and stuck in a toxic school culture.

So What Should You Keep an Eye Out for When Interviewing?

Here are three specific red flags that I have picked up over the years. Think of it as a kind of toxic environment-resistant checklist. 

1. Communication (or lack thereof)

I had a bizarre interview once. The interviewer didn’t ask me any questions about my experience, what I knew about the school, or why I wanted to work there. Instead, he started asking me about the weather. And then he started talking about his dog.

I should have gotten up and walked out of the room right then and there, but I was so nervous, and who doesn’t love talking about dogs? However, we’d spent fifteen minutes talking about his dog before I knew it! 

I was offered the job but did not accept it.

When you start a new position, it is essential that you feel comfortable asking questions. That is why paying attention to how communication works at school is so important. If you experience a lack of communication during the interview process or if the school seems unresponsive to your questions or concerns or needs to be more explicit in their communication, this could indicate a lack of organization or a communication breakdown within the school. 

Worse, this is a huge red flag if they seem disinterested or dismissive of your questions. 

Additionally, paying attention to the interviewer’s body language and tone of voice during the interview is significant. If they seem aloof when you ask questions, it could signify a lack of investment in the hiring process and that the school is more interested in filling a position quickly than finding the right fit for the school culture. 

Questions to ask during the interview

  • What are the communication channels typically used between teachers and administrators?
  • How does the school handle conflicts or disagreements between staff members or with parents?
  • How does the school communicate with parents and the broader community about important events or changes in policies?

2. Negative Comments During the Interview

I once interviewed at a school that was so toxic I was honestly afraid to ask any questions.

One of the interviewers was a teacher who had been there for 20 years. She talked about how she knew teachers who staff members had targeted to get them to quit. She also mentioned that some of her colleagues were terrible at their jobs but were well-liked by students, so they were never disciplined.

I wondered why she had stayed so long if it was so bad—then realized that I really didn’t care; I just knew I would not end up there.

I did not get offered that position, which was okay.

Be wary of how the interviewer talks about the school culture or their colleagues. It is a huge red flag for a toxic work environment if they speak negatively about the school or other teachers. 

If the interviewer blames the previous teachers for being unable to handle the workload or if they lack empathy towards students, that says more about the environment than the job. And if the interviewer refers to the students as “problematic” or “difficult,” run!

Questions to ask during the interview

  • How does the school leadership team address conflicts or disagreements among staff members?
  • How does the school administration regularly gather feedback from staff members, and what actions do they take in response to this feedback?
  • Can you describe the school’s approach to fostering a collaborative work environment among staff?

3. No Mentoring Program or Inadequate Resources for PD

In a recent interview, I asked about a new teacher mentor program. I wish I could describe the annoyance on the interviewer’s face. 

After a few moments, he responded that they only hire teachers they feel do not need much support, which can “exit the gate running.” I proceeded to ask about professional development opportunities. Again the annoyance followed by “our teachers take care of that on their own.”

I don’t know why they offered me the position, but I understand why I declined the offer.

It is a red flag if the school does not have a mentoring program or does not prioritize ongoing professional development. If the school cannot provide straightforward answers or has no clear plan for ongoing professional development, it suggests a lack of investment in its staff.

If a school will not support or allocate resources to its teachers, how can it prioritize teacher success?

Questions to ask during the interview

  • How do you ensure new teachers receive ongoing support and guidance through the mentorship program or professional development opportunities?
  • How do you measure the effectiveness of new teachers?
  • What specific skills are teachers asked to participate in with professional development opportunities?

Why Asking Questions is Crucial

Not only does asking these questions allow you to make the best decision about accepting a position that may lead to your frustration, but it also can help you land the job. You demonstrate your interest in the position and commitment to the school by asking thoughtful questions.

Overall, using your judgment and paying attention to your gut instincts when interviewing for a teaching job is essential. Working in education is a significant commitment that requires careful consideration. Ultimately, finding the proper job in education is about more than just getting a paycheck. It’s about positively influencing your students’ lives and creating a worthwhile career for yourself. 

Remember that you are empowered to ask questions and advocate for yourself during the hiring process. Be bold and seek clarification if something seems amiss.

By being mindful of red flags and following your instincts, you can set yourself up for success in the classroom and beyond. Don’t accept a job offer just because it was offered; accept it because you know it is a good fit for you and the school. 

Otherwise, you might find yourself going through the whole job search thing again the following year.

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