Labrador school called ‘toxic’ workplace

Michael Johansen newsroom@thewesternstar.com
Published on May 18, 2013

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.