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Toxic Teachers: The Top 5 Traits

In this article, we’re looking at top five traits of toxic teachers.

I’m one of a few who have been both student and teacher in a number of fields, and not in traditional education settings, where often these five traits are championed as necessary and good.

I’ve been a private maths tutor for nearly ten years and have started a local meditation community, as part of which I teach 20+ meditators every week.

Apart from doing very well in school and university, I’ve also learned Spanish, Chinese, translation and guitar from experienced educators.

As such, I believe I have some unique perspectives to share on the topic of toxic teachers.

Without further ado, let’s get to the first trait of toxic teachers: envy.

Toxic Teachers – Trait 1: Envy

It might seem strange to talk about envy in the student-teacher relationship, but I’ve found that, particularly if the teacher and student are both adults, teachers can envy their students for several reasons.

Teachers may envy you because of your standout ability, or because you outshine their children, or because of your social class or financial situation. 

This might sound strange, but I’m certain I’ve experienced it on numerous occasions. The envy created a wall between us, and the relationship became more about politics and self-preservation than learning and progress.

We all feel envy, and it remains fairly harmless if not acted on. But if a teacher envies their student and it starts to show, it can quickly turn toxic. Let me explain.

When we envy someone, it hurts us when they do well, and we often start pointing out their flaws and criticising them to bring them down and assuage our jealousy. 

If a teacher does this to their student, this can seriously disrupt the student’s progress. Focusing only on their weak points, often exaggerated by the teacher due to envy, the student underestimates their level and gets discouraged. The teacher can easily justify this with platitudes like: “Well, no need to tell you what you’re doing right since you already know how to do it!”

The teacher also won’t want you to continue to progress: that would only heighten their sense of inferiority. This is directly opposed to the main role of a teacher. In a professional setting, an instructor might even deliberately jeopardise your learning journey if they’re scared you’ll overtake them and make them look inferior.

I think the ideal teacher is delighted when their students progress, and not because it makes them look good, but out of innate joy for the student’s success.

If you’re an envious teacher, I strongly suggest you pay close attention to how you treat the student, and prevent your envy from affecting the relationship.

If you’re on the receiving end and notice it’s creating toxicity, the best you can do is hide your strengths, or deliberately show your weaknesses.

Toxic Teachers – Trait 2: Ridiculing

Needless to say, if a teacher makes fun of you, either for your knowledge of the subject or because of your personal traits, they’re not performing the role of teacher, but of bully.

Though I don’t advocate teachers being too nice, overlooking students’ weak points or not giving honest feedback from fear of offending students, I’m definitely against ridicule and humiliation.

A good teacher empowers their students, bolsters their self-belief, and helps them trust in their capability to achieve whatever goals they set for themselves. Ridiculing and humiliation does the exact opposite: it makes the student feel small, stupid and inherently flawed.

A classic context for ridiculing is when a student does something wrong. A vindicative teacher may laugh at them, make fun, or shout at them.

In no way does this serve the student. Mistakes are an inherent part of the learning process. You can’t learn something without making mistakes, perhaps thousands of them. Teachers who ridicule students for mistakes are ruining their chances of making progress in the subject. Terrified to make a mistake, the student simply won’t try, which leaves them stuck at their current level.

In no learning context is ridicule justified, and I think teachers use it out of a Machiavellian urge to control students and be “respected” by them.

If you’re a teacher of this sort, I recommend you seriously consider your motivation for teaching people along with the effects your behaviour has on them.

If you’re on the receiving end, know that you’re not the problem in this relationship. Your psychopathic teacher is.

What doesn’t work, despite a certain macho attitude to the contrary, is scorn, excoriation, humiliation — anything that destroys the student’s confidence and self-esteem.

George Leonard

Toxic Teachers – Trait 3: Feedback Always Negative

Another trait of toxic teachers is that they only offer feedback on what you didn’t do right, ignoring what you did do right.

There might not be any nefarious motivations behind this trait. It can simply be a habit, or a result of believing that the only important feedback is that which attempts to correct errors or misunderstanding. 

I struggle with this a little bit. I’m not sure whether it’s due to my experiences in mainstream education, or because of my high standards, but I often focus on what needs to be improved, rather than what’s already perfect. It’s an area of continual improvement and growth for me.

Yet, conscious or not, the fixation on the negative is damaging for students.

Self-belief – the student’s trust in their ability to learn the subject – is one of the key factors behind successful learning. When you point out their strong points, you strengthen their self-belief. You stir their inspiration and thirst for learning. You let them know that all their effort has been worthwhile.

A teacher who only focuses on the negative misses this opportunity and may inadvertently damage the student’s self-belief, even if their overall performance is high. They themselves wi fixate on the negative and feel demotivated.

Sure, the teacher must point out weaknesses. Not doing so is also irresponsible. 

The key is to balance the two, as George Leonard wonderfully sums up:

The best teacher generally strives to point out what the student is doing right at least as frequently as what she or he is doing wrong.

George Leonard

4: Results-Obsessed

You can divide teachers and learners into two categories: those who prioritise grades and certificates over real knowledge and competence, and those who prioritise real knowledge and competence over grades and certificates.

Unfortunately, in contingency-focused, deadline-dominated mainstream education, the former perspective tends to prevail. I think this is highly toxic, as are the teachers who advocate it.

This view is dominated by the idea that education is a short-term problem to be solved. The teachers need to look good to headteachers and parents, the institution needs to look good in the league tables, and the students need good grades for their CVs. So let’s focus on getting their marks as high as possible, at all costs.

It seems good on the surface, until you witness it in action.

This leads to extraordinarily superficial learning based on robotic memorisation of procedures and formulae, with minimal appreciation for the subject’s depth or the interconnectedness of its parts.

It forces students into a box. Do this, do that, and I’ll give you a big tick. They think in terms of recipes and steps, rather than the goal and the many paths that lead to it. They become robotic sheep unable to think for themselves.

Advocates of this approach tend to dismiss the second perspective as being unpragmatic and wooly. Why bother learning the subject in depth? Let’s just get the grade and move on.

Let me tell you: if you focus on understanding a subject to its bones, you’ll get outstanding grades. You get the deep appreciation and and the bureaucratic rubber stamp. Focus on the result, and not only do you fail to really learn the subject, you might not even get the touted result.

If a teacher focuses only on grades, they’re too involved with appearances, contingencies and surface-level knowledge. That’s not the ideal kind of influence if you want to be a rockstar learner.

You might like my episode on why talent is a myth.

5: My Way or the Highway

The final trait of toxic teachers is when they grip so tightly on to their own methods and approach and fail to recognise the validity of others.

If they hold this mentality, it’s likely you’ll get imprinted with it. Not knowing better, you’ll think that there’s one way to Rome, and your mind immediately closes.

This kind of teacher will give you one method and say “this is how it’s done, don’t look around for other methods,” enforcing slavish adherence to their method.

All subjects – whether it’s sewing or string theory – are deep, multifaceted, remarkably interconnected. There are many ways to do everything, more than any single person knows. Any teacher who fails to appreciate this depth and transmit it in their teachings is doing their students a huge disservice.

Whether you’re a student or teacher, always keep your mind open and realise that there are more techniques and methods in your field than you appreciate right now. Actively seek them out. That way, your mind remains open, and you continue learning.

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