Toxic-Positivity: How 'The Show Must Go On' is Secretly Harming Our Teachers
Updated: Feb 21
Photo by pch.vector
As a learning specialist, I'm in the fortunate position to get to work with and learn from phenomenal teachers and leaders across our state. I hear the details of teaching in hybrid schedules, teaching entirely online, teaching entirely in person, teaching in person with half of the students choosing to be online so teaching them both or not at all at the same time. I hear about the pain/worry/fear that our school personnel are facing. I hear about the loved ones sick or lost to COVID. I hear about the complete and utter frustration that is the quarantine conundrum. I hear about F-lists, absences lists, and data lists.
I hear about student apathy, and teacher burnout. I hear about student burnout and teacher apathy. I hear parents who are hurting because their children are learning at home--and it. is. not. working. I hear teachers who are hurting because they are teaching in homes, and it. is. not. working.
While my role is to support and serve schools across our state through innovative learning opportunities, I can fully appreciate the amount of overwhelm and "F-it-ness" attitude that many of our teachers are experiencing.
We are all slowly waking up to the reality that hard work does not, in fact, guarantee opportunity or success. We are realizing that working hard does not, in fact, guarantee happiness or fulfillment. We are realizing that hardly does work fill our emotional needs at the deepest level--even when we work with students and colleagues who we genuinely adore.
At some point over this past year, each and every one of us has realized just how humanly human we are. We have felt fatigue and overwhelm. Rather than saying, "I'm stressed" like it's a normal, expected state, we have started to say things like, "I am afraid" or "I am sad."
And when we are afraid or sad, when we are fatigued with failure to control what we used to control, when we are inundated with change and upheaval and crisis and trauma--when these things are happening to us--the last thing we need is toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is actually a relatively new term to me, though the experience (I'm realizing) is not. Toxic positively is essentially when you deny yourself the ability to feel sad, disappointed, upset, or negative emotions in general. When you are quick to "brush yourself off" or "keep calm and carry on" even when the sky is falling. And though I'm no proponent of drama or over-reaction, I also realize that I (personally) am not the most emotional person on earth.
So what does toxic positivity look like in a school or workplace? When leaders fail to acknowledge difficult, inappropriate, or challenging situations. When we hear phrases like, "We just have to do it" or "We just have to stay positive and breathe" or "No matter what I ask you to do, no matter how difficult, you do it with a smile." I know that each of these phrases may sound harmless on their own, but consider the implications.
Essentially, we are telling our people: I don't care how much I ask of you, or how overwhelmed you may feel. As long as you put a smile on your face, I am happy with your performance.
What do I love and cherish the most in the people who lead me? Their ability to allow me the freedom to lose it. To tell them my fears or worries. To be angry or annoyed about a decision. To express frustration or disappointment with a plan. To celebrate, authentically, when I'm proud of us or something that has happened. What shuts me down?
When my leaders don't check-in on me. When I feel like my leaders have favorites. When my leaders are always quick to move to solve the problem before we are allowed to share how we feel. When my feelings are dismissed.
I'm fortunate in that I've been blessed to work with amazing educational leaders in my career. And though each has been unique and different, I have always been able to say how I feel--especially when its needed. I'm a pretty positive person, and as a leader, I look for the positives myself.
But to deny another's need to feel something other than happy or inspired--that is toxic positivity. And when, in a workplace, we create a system that encourages people to work without boundaries or limits, we're creating toxic positivity. No job is worth our mental or physical well-being. No project or unit should cause us to lose sleep. No leader should encourage this type of behavior by applauding our hard work, when in reality, we were worked too hard.