I imagine pretty much everyone reading this has attended a school at some point in their life. While a small minority of people have only ever experienced homeschooling, schools and equivalent institutions shape the formative years of the vast majority of people in society.
After and sometimes during school (at some point down the line) usually comes employment. While being an employee is very different to being a school pupil, there are some similarities in both environments which have often been deliberately cultivated by schools. Schools are meant to prepare pupils for adult life, and so it is understandable that school environments often seek to emulate working ones.
And yet there are aspects of both school and working environments – often deliberately cultivated – which are decidedly unhealthy, and which can even set a precedent for unhealthy relationships later on in life.
But what are these, and how do they manifest themselves?
These environments promote hierarchical relationships as a norm
The structure of school environments is often predicated on a hierarchy existing between teachers and children. Discipline and adherence to rules is championed by many educators as key to helping children grow into responsible adults who can learn from positive and exemplary behaviours.
But we know that the negative interactions students have with teachers stay with them for a remarkably long time, and have a profound impact. I’m sure we can all remember times when teachers reacted negatively towards us, or appeared content to exert their power in ways that were anxiety-inducing. Teacher-child relationships are some of the most significant we experience growing up – and yet hierarchy is an explicit facet of them.
Hierarchy is not necessarily a negative, and you might argue that hierarchical environments benefit children and allow them to learn the functions of respect and discipline. But hierarchical environments can often be unhealthy.
Personally, I was a very anxious child, and used to get scared about going to school. Between years three and six, I encountered several teachers who would routinely raise their voices for supposed misdemeanours (one memorable occasion being when I couldn’t get to grips with a dance for the school concert). I knew I was well-behaved, so it was all the worse when I’d be denied my lunch-time play simply because I was bad at sewing and hadn’t got to where the other kids had on their embroidery (yes, I did go to school in the 21st century – it was just very old-fashioned). I distinctly remember sitting alone in a classroom one lunchtime and crying because I’d been shouted at for having smudges on my work (my pen had started to break mid-way through). I was made to do the work again that lunchtime – but no-one ever looked at it.
The above is not just simply me listing my grievances – the point I wish to make is that the experience of being belittled as a child (an experience that I’m sure a lot of people will sadly share from their school days) can go on to have negative effects into adulthood. Feeling as if you constantly have to be sorry, or as if you’re always in the wrong, can make a child grow up into an adult who always takes the blame for everything – even when they don’t have to. Equally, seeing such behaviours play out can model really unhealthy relationship dynamics, and lead some children to perpetrate these negative behaviours into adulthood.
Disrespectful and/or inappropriate behaviour can be normalised
Much as schools are hierarchical, so can many workplaces be. Although relationships between colleagues (and between teachers and pupils) should be predicated on mutual respect, this is certainly not always the case.
We know know that happier employees are more productive employees, and yet it seems that Britain in particular has a problem with creating and sustaining workplaces where employees can be happy. Research from 2018 found that more than half of all UK employees were unhappy in their job, and over 30% of those self-reporting as unhappy claimed that this was down to poor company culture.
Poor company culture is often a result of intense hierarchies and a lack of trust between people of all different levels. When employees feel patronised by their bosses, or overlooked for recognition and reward, this creates a very negative employer-employee dynamic that can significantly affect business performance.
And such negative relationship dynamics in our (often longer than) 9-5 can undoubtedly have knock on effects in our personal lives.
Coming back to school now – the negative and sometimes inappropriate relationships that can unfold between teachers and pupils should also be of concern. Many teachers, even and especially popular ones, might manipulate their status amongst pupils to perpetuate a harmful relationship dynamic. Any inappropriate relationships between teachers and children can also set the stage for harmful relationships in later life, especially because they take place in a context of power and control.
There is a lack of accountability for perpetrators of harm
Just consider the Priti Patel bullying scandal. When Priti Patel was defended by Boris Johnson, who claimed that he did not believe she had been a bully, despite an investigation into her conduct finding that she had broken the ministerial code, it was a warning sign that bullies are rarely held accountable.
This sets a terrible precedent for those experiencing violent or abusive situations. Seeing prominent instances of bullies being pardoned is a sign that justice is a fickle thing. Abusers will not always be appropriately sanctioned for their behaviour, and this makes complaining about an abuser doubly difficult. There is always the fear that if the abuser finds out about your complaints, they will only make life more difficult for you. And that fear is built in from when we are young.
As a child, complaining that your teacher is unfair gets you nowhere. The most common response is for people to disbelieve you, the child. And yet teachers can be unfair, and far worse. But when children are not believed or shut down after complaining about authority figures, this sends a sign that complaining about bullies or those treating us badly will not work. This is a dangerous precedent, which sets in motion a cycle which allows bad behaviour to go unchecked time and again.
So we must be aware; all the relationships we have inform all our other relationships. The patterns for unhealthy intimate relationships are borne of patterns experienced in other relationships. It is important for all of us to work to a place where our conduct in relationships is responsible and sets good examples.