podcast cover for episode is toxic positivity killing teacher morale

Is Toxic Positivity Killing Teacher Morale on Your Campus?

podcast Aug 29, 2023

What is Toxic Positivity in Education?

Today, I'm looking at the topic of toxic positivity in the education system, a topic that is rarely addressed but is crucially important. The concept of toxic positivity refers to the culture of forced false positivity in schools, where the comfort of maintaining a cheerful atmosphere takes precedence over acknowledging and addressing real issues. For me, the epitome is School Spirit Week. Yep, I said what I said. Because no amount of pajama or crazy hair days will fix behavior issues and the lack of support we feel when dealing with students who are genuinely struggling.

The messaging is subtle. "We've got this!", "Let's do it for the kids!" "We're superheroes!" or the infamous, "It could be worse!". The worst of all being, "Positive vibes only!"

While many of these quips are meant to be inspiring and positive, they can often have the opposite effect. The problem is they can invalidate the genuine issues that educators are encountering.

Dr Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, sums it up nicely,

" It may sound innocuous on the surface, but when you share something difficult with someone and they insist that you turn it into a positive, then what you're really saying is my comfort is more important than your reality."

I explain it a different way. I liken it to seeing that the gas tank is on empty, but instead of taking action (pulling off to the nearest gas station), you just stick a happy face sticker to cover the gauge. It might help you feel better, but the problems didn't go away.

The Difference Between Toxic Positivity and Positive Mindset Habits

Am I being a hypocrite? After all, I'm most famous for is my book Positive Mindset Habits for Teachers.

Well, I've been candid that not every day is sunshine and rainbows in the classroom. Teaching has brought me to my knees more than once, and I'm pretty transparent about sharing that.

I'm about authentic positivity, fostering optimism, and focusing on what we can control. I emphasize feeling more empowered to make changes and recognize that the day goes better when we assume people have the best intentions. But also acknowledging that people's emotions are VALID. The problems in education are real. Coercing people to put in a happy face and discouraging any talk about negative things takes away people's opportunities to work and improve the issues.

School Spirit Week Gone Bad (Unpopular Opinion)

For me, the epitome of toxic positivity can be School Spirit Week. Yep, I said what I said. As well as stressing out teachers and parents, students who need structure and routine also find spirit weeks very uncomfortable.

Let's be honest. No amount of pajama or crazy hair days will fix behavior issues and the lack of support we feel when dealing with students who are truly struggling. Teachers desperately need more counselors and mental health professionals, not "jeans passes." I file the whole thing under the category of "forced fun."

Beware the "Find Your Marigold" Scenario

You may be aware of the beautiful article "Find Your Marigolds" that Jen Gonzalez posted on her Cult of Pedagogy blog back in 2013. It centers around the idea that when farmers are planting crops, they often plant marigolds side by side with different crops because it helps them grow. Marigolds enrich the soil, and many crops will grow better with marigolds next to them. Conversely, farmers need to be careful where they plant walnut trees, because walnut trees can be poisonous to many crops. So the moral of the story is for new teachers to seek out their "marigolds."

Now, I have no problem with this concept. I teach it myself when I coach teachers (and students) to "mind who they hang with." We all know that some people charge our batteries, and others drain them. So the concept is 100 % sound. But how the concept has been used in past years is often problematic.

For example, I have heard of principals handing out marigolds to all new staff. Not so bad. But mandating veteran staff members show up to back-to-school professional development in yellow or orange t-shirts? That's toxic.

Forcing all teachers to be Marigolds is not only unrealistic but also damaging. Not all teachers are marigolds or walnuts. Universally labeling people is not helpful and doesn't allow people to grow or change.

What about the 'Stay in Your Lane' teachers? We should recognize that plenty of teachers want to avoid getting involved with mentoring new teachers. They perform their jobs to the best of their ability, are decent teachers and positive role models to students, and maintain a healthy work-life balance without burning out. Not everyone needs to be orange and shiny.

True Inspiration for Teachers - Empowerment

Moving away from toxic positivity, I advocate for a shift toward empowerment in education. Empowerment in this context refers to creating an atmosphere where individual feelings are respected, labels are discarded, and teachers can express themselves genuinely. Empowerment fosters a healthier and more realistic school environment that does not invalidate feelings but encourages open discussion and resolution of issues.

I aim to empower teachers and students to have their own opinions and take control of their energy and time rather than suppressing their feelings.

By shifting from empty cheerfulness to genuine empowerment, we can work towards creating a healthier, more holistic, and empowering environment in the world of education. Embracing the ideas in the Balance Your Teacher Life podcast should help.

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