Choose between your children and students. Teach students online and in person at the same time. Working twice as hard without an increase in salary. For many, this is teaching in 2020. Yes, writing “teachers can do just about anything” in frosting and putting it on a cake in the teacher’s lounge is fine. Hearing the phrase “we are all in the same boat” is a good thing. The cheers of the staff on Friday nights to celebrate the hard and extra work that teachers do is a good thing. But do you know what is the most beautiful? Find appropriate preparation time during legal business hours for planning. Risk-reward for teachers who teach face-to-face. And what about school cultures that focus not on toxic positivity, but on the physical and mental health of teachers?
What is meant by toxic positivity?
When someone tells you “it could be worse” or “look on the bright side” they may 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, this sounds optimistic, but in reality, putting aside unpleasant feelings makes it all the more important.
In schools, toxic positivity can take the form of principals urging teachers to “take care of themselves,” but then burden them with additional meetings and responsibilities. It may also seem that someone is spending money to hang several message banners in the hallway, but not enough soap for the bathroom. They can also sound like conversations that encourage teachers to “stay positive” without delving into the really important issues, whether it’s Covid-19, equality or school culture.
Toxic positivity must go: it starts with us
Let’s stop telling teachers to do yoga and shower (unless that’s what they want and choose to do). Let’s start by advocating for teachers and working for systemic change so that teachers are treated as professionals (many of whom have master’s degrees) who are experts in their content and have an important (and sometimes ungrateful) mission to teach our children.
And now I’m going to say something that might hurt some people. In order for things to change, we must begin by changing us teachers.
Let’s stop wearing our stress like a badge of honor and start living in reality.
While it may seem tempting to blame our principal, our district, the Department of Education, or our community, this won’t make us better for 2020. Instead, let’s stop thinking about toxic positivity (“We can do that!”;” I cried once. Just today!”) and I started living in reality (“No, I can’t do that because it’s not on my contract” and “No, I won’t work all night and every weekend because it’s not on my contract”).
So while 2020 is completely out of control and the only certainty is uncertainty, here are the five things I wish I had done when I was teaching. Let’s move from the “I can do everything and more” culture to “I can do what I’m set to do.”
1. Stop coming early and stay late
I’ve tried this in all the schools I’ve taught. There was passive-aggressive competition over who would work longer and, therefore, more difficult. It was a badge of honor to be the professor who got into the parking lot first. Let’s stop this. If you like to go to school early because that’s when you’re most productive and able to, that’s great. But if you wake up, rush in the morning and rush to school because you think you should, stop. And when it comes to staying late, many of us have families, friends, pets, and reasons to come home (even if that reason is Netflix).
2. Stop working with you wherever you go
During my first year of teaching, I sorted papers on Christmas Eve. I kept student tests in my bag so that if I had to wait in line at the grocery store or at the coffee shop, I could pull them out and write them down. What a way to live! I still get goosebumps when I look in the closet and see the pink bag I’ve been carrying everywhere… Smarter grade doesn’t mean harder. Not everything needs to be evaluated. Your students probably won’t even read the nine hundred comments you spent writing on Saturday.
3. Stop saying “yes” to more work because you feel you have to.
I’m really trying to remove the word “must” from my vocabulary. Do I only have to sleep four hours a night to have a beautifully designed lesson plan every morning? I do not know. I know I don’t want that. The more you do what is necessary, the more resentment grows, and I believe that resentment is the reason many teachers stop teaching. Yes, we are guardians. Yes, we love our students. Yes, we entered this profession because we care deeply about education and learning. This does not mean that we should sacrifice ourselves to do more for others. It’s okay to say no. In fact, this is exactly what we must start doing to be healthy.
4. Rewriting History: The Story of the Martyr Who Works 24/7
How many faculty meetings have started with a co-worker, “I’ve been working all weekend and getting ready for this week!” or “I hardly slept last night because I had so much to do!” Sigh… It’s not a badge of honor, and saying that you have no limits and that you work all weekend contributes to an educational narrative that doesn’t serve you or anyone else. What if we start to say, “I spent the weekend napping and reading” instead of “I had to wash seven clothes and mark papers for seven seasons.” Or how about “I didn’t think about school at all this weekend”?
5. In the end, teaching is work, and it’s okay to see it that way.
The years I spent teaching in a classroom are the years I am most proud of (for some). But when I look back at my self-education and see myself working 24/7, crying in my car on the way home, and missing her kids’ parent-teacher meetings because she didn’t have the courage to finish her meetings in time, I feel sad. I was also part of the story. I was a “yes” teacher and a “should” teacher, and I probably should have said no and did yoga because I wanted to. The truth is, I saw teaching as a calling, not a job. You can take care of your children and love to teach while you are out of school when you are out of school. If so, I might still be studying.
We’d love to hear about your experiences with toxic positivity in schools.