Worrying about masks and COVID. Talking to students about TikTok challenges. Trying to get things back to normal, when we are still far from it. For many, this is teaching in 2021. And yes, writing “teachers can virtually do anything” with icing and putting it on a cake in the teacher’s lounge is nice. Hearing, “we are all in this together,” is nice. Staff Shout-Outs on Fridays celebrating all the hard and extra work teachers are doing is nice. But you know what’s nicer? Adequate prep time during contract hours to plan. Salaries that allow you to focus on one job instead of looking for a second to supplement. And how about school cultures that don’t center on toxic positivity, but teachers’ physical and mental health?
What do we mean by toxic positivity?
When someone says to you, “it could be worse” or “look on the bright side,” they might mean well, but what they are saying is an example of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is when we focus on the positive and reject, deny, or displace the negative. In theory, it sounds like being optimistic, but in reality, pushing aside our unpleasant emotions only make them bigger.
In schools, toxic positivity may look like administrators urging teachers to take time for “self care,” but then loading them down with extra meetings and responsibilities. It may look like someone hanging a “teacher strong” banner in the hallway, but not paying for enough soap for the bathroom. It may look like conversations that encourage teachers to “stay positive” while not digging deeper into the issues that really matter, whether it’s a pandemic, equity, or school culture.
Toxic positivity has got to go: it starts with us
Let’s stop telling teachers to do yoga and take baths (unless that’s what they want and choose to do). Let’s start advocating for teachers and working towards systemic change so teachers are treated like professionals (many with masters degrees) who are experts in their content and doing the important work of teaching our children.
And now I am going to say something that might ruffle a few feathers. In order for things to change, it has to start with us, the teachers.
Let’s stop wearing our stress like a badge of honor and start getting real
While it may feel tempting to blame our admin or our district or the Department of Education or our society, that’s not going to make anything better. Instead, let’s stop buying into toxic positivity (“we can do this!” and “I only cried once today!”) and start being real (“no, I can’t do that because it isn’t in my contract and I am not going to work all night and every weekend because it isn’t in my contract”).
It’s time to shift the culture from “I can do it all and more” to “I can do what I was hired to do.” Here are the five things I wish I had done when I was teaching.
1. Stop showing up early and staying late
I have experienced this in every school I taught at. There was a passive-aggressive competition over who worked longer and, therefore, harder. It was a badge of honor to be the teacher who was the first to pull into the parking lot. Let’s just stop this. If you want to get to school early because that’s when you are most productive and you can, then great. But if you are waking up, rushing your morning, and speeding to school because you think you have to, stop. And as for staying late, many of us have families and friends and pets and reasons to get home (even if that reason is Netflix).
2. Stop taking work with you everywhere you go
In my first year of teaching, I graded essays on Christmas Eve. I kept student papers in my bag so that if I waited in line at the grocery store or the coffee shop, I could pull them out and get some grading done. What a way to live. I still get chills when I look in the closet and see the pink tote bag that I carried everywhere. Grade smarter, not harder. Not everything needs a grade. Chances are your kids aren’t even reading the nine hundred comments that you spent your Saturday writing.
3. Stop saying yes to more work because you feel like you should
I am trying really hard to eliminate the word “should” from my vocabulary. Should I only sleep four hours at night so I have a beautifully crafted lesson plan every morning? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t want to. The more you give into the “shoulds,” the more resentment builds up, and I believe resentment is the reason why many teachers leave the classroom. Yes, we are caretakers. Yes, we love our kids. Yes, we went into this profession because we care deeply about teaching and learning. That doesn’t mean that we should sacrifice ourselves in order to do more for others. It’s OK to say no. In fact, it’s exactly what we need to start doing in order to be OK.
4. Rewrite the story: the teacher martyr work 24/7 narrative has got to go
How many faculty meetings have started with a colleague sharing, “I was working all weekend to get ready for this week!” or “I barely slept last night because I had so much to do!” Sigh. This isn’t a badge of honor, and sharing that you don’t have boundaries and work all weekend contributes to a teaching narrative that fails to serve you and anyone else. What if we started to say, “I spent the weekend napping and reading” instead of “I had to do seven loads of laundry and grade papers.” Or how about “I didn’t think about school at all this weekend?”
5. At the end of the day, teaching is a job, and it’s OK to see it that way
The years that I taught in a classroom are some of the years that I am most proud of. But when I look back on my teaching self and see her working 24-7 and crying in her car on the way home and missing her kids’ parent-teacher conferences because she didn’t have the guts to end her own on time, I feel sad. I was part of the narrative too. I was the “yes” teacher and the “should” teacher, and maybe I should have said no and done some yoga because I wanted to. The truth is I saw teaching as a calling, not a job. You can care about your kids and love teaching and still leave school when school ends. If I had, I might still be teaching.
We’d love to hear about your experiences with toxic positivity in schools. Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.