Listen, I love and believe in positivity. My peppy ’90s female artist playlist on Spotify can get me out of the deepest of funks. I can cheer myself up by taking terrible pictures of my face. I believe wholeheartedly that the positive things we say about ourselves and others take root in a very real and meaningful way.
But toxic positivity is a different story. Toxic positivity demands that we ignore, suppress, or deny negative or critical emotions, and it is often a precursor to manipulation, overwhelm, and, in some cases, even abuse.
Unfortunately, even the most well-meaning teachers and school leaders can promote toxic positivity. While many of these phrases seem innocent (and they can be, with correct usage), they often suggest that the only appropriate response is compliance.
“We’re a family.”
I’ll start with what I think is the trickiest one. Sometimes this phrase is used in a healthy way as genuine encouragement or a friendly reminder of the supportiveness of the school culture. I still think of my last school as a family.
But sometimes it’s wielded almost as a threat. “We’re a family” can be used to get teachers to commit to unfair or unreasonable workloads and fill in the gaps for poor planning or organization from leadership.
“Because of the increase in fights on campus, I chose a department at random for after-school duty until the holidays. Sorry, science teachers. Families do hard things together sometimes, and we’re a family.”
I would want out of that family.
“We do what’s best for kids.” Or “Kids come first.”
This sentiment is insulting to the professionalism, intelligence, and compassion of teachers. You might as well say “Stop thinking of your own needs.”
Of course we want to do what’s best for kids! But with a little creativity and planning, what’s best for kids doesn’t have to be at the expense of teachers’ bandwidth.
“Leave your negativity at the door.”
I’m wary of any “don’t bring your negativity into this space”–type messages. I’ve almost always heard it as “I don’t want to hear any criticism of, pushback to, or challenges to decisions I’ve made.” And that’s dangerous.
“That’s a classroom management issue.” Or “That’s a relationship issue.”
But what about when it’s not? It’s dismissive and naive to claim that any classroom issue can be fixed by a relationship or classroom management. It can’t.
“Teamwork makes the dream work!” Or “Be a team player!”
If this phrase were used in private conversations with teachers who aren’t carrying their weight, that would be one thing. But often it’s used to get teachers who are already team players to add even more to their workload.
“Remember your ‘why.’”
Our “whys”—or why we became a teacher—are important, and reflecting on them can be a really good exercise. But it’s really icky to me to weaponize values for compliance, or to assume that if teachers would just remember why they do this job, we wouldn’t have any of the huge systemic problems facing our education system. We used to joke at the way this was used by an administrator at one of my former schools.
“FYI everyone: Faculty bathroom is out of both toilet paper and soap now. But remember your why and it should be fine.”
“What should I do about Joshua? He threw a chair at the sub.”
“I don’t know, remember your why?”
“We’re all in this together.”
Said by thousands of school boards in 2020 announcing that teachers would be back in buildings while they would continue to hold their meetings over Zoom. If you are not literally in this together with me, I don’t want to hear it.
“We don’t do this for the money.” Or “In it for the outcome, not the income.”
Excuse me? Who on earth is in this job for the money?! Also, until we can pay our bills, student loans, and mortgages with “student outcomes,” we actually need to be compensated.
The alternative to toxic positivity is not negativity. It’s honesty. Here are some phrases that can inspire genuine positivity on your campus:
“How can I be the leader you need?”
“Here are the things I value about you.”
“I see your hard work.”
“I’m committed to supporting you in whatever way I can.”
“I know this is a big ask, and here’s the support I will make sure you have to accomplish it.”
“Here’s what I’m proposing, but I’d like your feedback first.”
“I want to recognize some of the amazing collaboration I’ve seen this week.”
“Thank you for showing up when it’s hardest.”
We can encourage, uplift, and inspire teachers without being sneaky, making them feel guilty, or pressuring them to give more to a profession that already asks so much.