Labrador school called ‘toxic’ workplace

Michael Johansen
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Work life at the Queen of Peace School in Happy Valley-Goose Bay is rife with fear, secrecy, disrespect, conflict, tension, animosity, bullying, favouritism, intimidation, rudeness and childishness — and most of it seems to be the fault of the school administration.

That’s according to a workplace assessment completed Jan. 16 by a co-ordinator with the NLTA’s employee assistance program (EAP) for Teachers.

“The majority of staff at Queen of Peace School shares the belief that their school has reached a level of disrespect which has created polarity amongst the staff, both as groups and individuals. The majority of staff shares the perception that their work environment is toxic,” the assessment reads.

“Most staff agree, including leadership, that there are significant areas of change and improvement needed in various aspects of leadership including, but not limited to, positivity, clear and consistent communications, problem solving, conflict resolution, creating respectful work environments and flexibility.”

The assessment, “a tool and a guiding document,” came out of a December 2012 request from the Labrador School Board that was sparked by the “knowledge” that the Grade 4-7 school was experiencing “an increase in grievances, possible personality clashes, breakdowns in communication and an increase in workplace conflict.”

Over three days in early January, all 30 staff members at Queen of Peace (teachers, teaching assistants, support staff and administration) were interviewed either individually or as part of six different focus groups.

An unspecified number of staff members who are currently on leave were also interviewed.

The depiction of Queen of Peace School isn’t entirely negative. When staff were asked what they like about their workplace, they mentioned welcoming colleagues, good collaboration, school assemblies, spirit days, a “genuine concern” for children, fun activities, their love of teaching, the clarity of the rules and the “great job” the administration was doing to keep up with advancing technologies.

However, while the list of “likes” only covers two-thirds of a page, the “dislikes” fill three and a half. Many of the points listed clearly echo one another and several themes emerge  — most of them pointing at the administration.

“Morale is very poor — would like to see it a happier place.”

The workplace is described as being in chaos.

There is “no friendliness, kindness, warmth or caring.” Not only are staff “terrified at work,” but “Students are terrified” as well.

In addition, the staff room, when it isn’t empty, is called a place where people get “screamed at and nagged.”

Most of the blame is heaped onto the school’s administration, which is described as disrespectful, inflexible, distant, rude, unsupportive, ungrateful, defensive, authoritarian and vindictive.

The administration is accused of employing “divide and conquer” tactics to deal with staff, of taking a “my way or no way” approach, of not meeting to discuss issues, and of speaking down to and admonishing staff in front of parents and children.

It’s also accused of being “dramatic about mistakes,” and of showing favouritism towards certain staff and students (“kids are treated with disrespect, especially low-income”).

Other complaints: “getting colleagues to report on other teachers,” “daily questioning (of) teacher competence and interfering with progress,” and shunning and punishing staff who ask for leave or who “go against the power.”

Respondents faulted the board for not implementing consequences for rule transgressions or solutions to problems, and for issuing “threats” around the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association.

Complicating the situation is a schism that has developed between certain classes, a schism that prevents the whole school from acting together: “Grades 4, 5 and 6 are a team, 7s are separate,” the assessment reads. “Grade 7s feel segregated from the rest of the building.”

This toxic environment, the assessor was told, has been allowed to persist for too long (10 to 12 years) and is likely the cause of declining academic outcomes and a bad reputation in the community: “Parent-teacher night — empty — no show.”

Principal Gary Dove is unwilling to discuss the contents of the assessment, calling it a private, in-house report that “hasn’t been completed yet.”

He says more meetings are needed to follow up on it and to get more input from teachers.

He says those meetings were scheduled to take place this school year, but they’ve now been postponed until next September.


Michael Johansen is a writer

living in Labrador.

Organizations: Peace School, Labrador School Board

Geographic location: Labrador, Happy Valley, Goose Bay

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Recent comments

  • John Tapscott
    August 24, 2013 - 17:33

    Chinese (?) proverb: "The fish rots from the head." Leadership and administration are separate functions and need to be kept separate in the workplace. It is rare and refreshing when leadership and management reside in the same person. What is rare is the leadership component, which will continue to be rare as long as management and administration skills are favoured over leadership skills. The proper function of a school principal is to be educational leader; someone who values and promotes a culture of teamwork rather than that of command and control. Too many principals want their staff to be on their team only on their terms. My way or the highway.

  • A concerned grandparent
    May 23, 2013 - 14:10

    As I read this article, it seems that the problem has been identified. It should be an easy fix, remove the problem.

  • Nora Ford
    May 23, 2013 - 09:30

    Why am I not surprised...

  • Robin Brown
    May 21, 2013 - 21:07

    I see it hasn't changed since I was a student there, about 9 years ago. Every child for themselves kind of environment. And if you weren't a favorite of a teacher then you were treated like some kind of parasite.

  • Floyd williams
    May 21, 2013 - 17:28

    I definitely agree with the grade 7 students feeling segregated. when I went to that school it seemed like the whole school was out to get us when I hit grade 7. Dove was always looking to get his point across any opportunity he had to assert his authority he took it. There were (and probably still are) many pointless rules when I was I went to that school. I felt more like a prisoner then a student.

  • Hobbes
    May 21, 2013 - 08:13

    I don't feel that this kind of treatment will end, especially now that the whole school system will become centralized under one super school board thanks to our wonderful government. Our children should never be treated unfairly based on income, nor should they be afraid to attend school. The Rights of the Child should always take precendent, and how a child is treated should not based on family income, family dynamics, gender, and ethnicity. Teachers who educate our children should not be put under that much stress and/or work in fear. It is a very sad work environment. A poor work environment means a poor learning environment.

  • Brendan Stuckless
    May 20, 2013 - 11:47

    Being a former student of the school I enjoyed it. Queen of peace was a nice place to go. Ever since Jon Hicks stood up against them things have been going into the gutter. Unless things have changed in the 3 years I have been gone I think the teachers are just having temper tantrums

    • ECHO
      May 21, 2013 - 08:58

      Do you think that John Hicks stood up to the administration for no reason? Do you think the teachers are just having temper tantrums for no reason? This article is written based on a report that was compiled by a co-ordinator with the NLTA’s employee assistance program, not just some random joe. It is a good thing that you enjoyed attending this school 3 years ago...but as a student you probably weren't involved directly with the affairs of the staff/administration - therefore you really wouldn't know.

  • Lola
    May 19, 2013 - 23:25

    Are you sure this isn't JRS in Wabush? Sounds the same to me.

  • A concerned parent
    May 19, 2013 - 15:55

    My children have had the misfortune of attending and still attend the schools in the Upper Lake Melville area. My daughter has told me stories of her being made fun of or picked on at staff. She eventually left her education because of bullying from students and staff at Mealy Mountain Collegiate. I tried to be a proactive parent and address things with the school and then the school board. What I said fell on deaf ears. My daughter developed severe anxiety and depression from all of what happened to her in this school district. My son has told me stories of what he has seen and heard in school. One story included a child crying after losing a grandparent and the teacher telling them to get over it. He also told of a time that he and friends were in the gym playing. One of the teachers came in yelling at them, when a child with sensitive hearing asked her to stop, she yelled louder as he sat there and cried. Bullying is alive and well in the schools of Labrador.

  • Looking in
    May 19, 2013 - 15:27

    I have seen the operations of this school and school board from a distance, and thought I was gone back in time, administrators function under the scare and fear tactics, in hope to break kids, parents, and staff. They hope to get their concerns and questions of those above crushed to teary eyed lost souls in hope none of the administration will be question again buy now weaken puppies. Shame on the department of education, for such tactics. These educated administrators are surprised to be the best educated, ....... Yal right.

  • Max
    May 18, 2013 - 22:24

    So sad! But my experience is that the NL school system has been cursed by a group of administrators who are simply untouchable. These small town CEO's stand like Goliaths over their staffs and wield an incredible amount of power in their mini kingdoms. They affect curriculum and programs in areas they may know little about but answer to no one. Small "p" politics determines work assignments and staff who dare to speak up risk continuous harassment. Staff without tenure and substitutes are manipulated like children while Internal and external reviews are an orchestrated farce. When these administrators are members of NLTA and must be protected by the same association that is supposed to protect the teachers the results are predictable. In cases where staff chooses to speak up and follow protocol the system grinds along at a glacial pace until complaints become another file to be forgotten or ignored.

  • coco
    May 18, 2013 - 08:50

    Our school system is an absolute nightmare. "....showing favoritism towards certain staff and students." “ are treated with disrespect, especially low-income.” “Parent-teacher night — empty — no show.” Sadly this describes other schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, not just the grade 4- 7 school in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. It stems from the reactive rather than proactive stance of the current provincial government. Principals control schools and boards control principals and the minister of education controls the board. Children (age 0 to 18) are little nobody's who can't vote or pay taxes. Principals cooperate with but carry more weight than social workers and law enforcement officers but it shouldn't be that way. The laws that apply to parents should also apply to principals. They don't/won't follow the guidelines in The Convention on the Rights of the Child because they don't seem to understand how it works. They (the principals, boards and the minister) make their own rules and toxic or not to everyone else, if it works for them, they won't change. After some 10 years, the only hope for change at this point in time is probably a new government with a minister of education who at least listens to people.