School & District Management Opinion

Toxic Positivity Has No Place in Schools

We can acknowledge everyone’s trauma and remain optimistic
By Cherisse Campbell — October 14, 2021 4 min read
A teacher sits on her desk thinking in an empty classroom.
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Nothing prepared me to lead through a global pandemic. Nothing. I have been a classroom teacher and a school leader, and now, a district leader. Leading right now is just different.

Through those experiences, I became skillful at helping navigate students, families, and staff members through short-term struggles. I’ve always prided myself in my ability to build strong teams that could band together and knock down any brick wall when faced with a formidable challenge. As educators, our toolboxes rarely included a hammer. Instead, we were armed with passion, innovation, grit, resilience, and a growth mindset that would make educator and psychologist Angela Duckworth herself stand back and say, “Wow!”

But what happens when the brick wall that we so skillfully and willfully knock down continues to rebuild? Eventually, the words of encouragement that once empowered us seem to mock us. Words like “pivot” make us want to stop in our tracks. Whimsical team-building activities make us want to withdraw in solitude. Our educators’ tool kit that once comforted and inspired us has transformed into toxic positivity, which is when, despite our efforts to uplift, we come off as disconnected and tone deaf from the lived experience of those we support. The easy answer to this challenge would be to retreat—we can’t be expected to keep this up. But we must, right?

Although educators never stood with our right hand in the air and took an official vow to “protect and serve,” “do no harm,” or “defend the Constitution of the United States” like those in other professions, we silently took all those vows when we stepped into our first classroom. We signed up for an unrequited love for which we give every piece of our being to elevate the hearts and minds of the students and families we serve. This love rarely yields significant financial gain or even a thank you, but we give it freely because that’s what we were called to do. Society depends on professional educators to prepare the next generation of poets, innovators, scientists, and citizens. Despite the fresh obstacles that await us around every corner, we figure out a way.

Even though a myriad of books on teaching and leading through the pandemic emerged seemingly overnight, no one has ever led through a crisis like this before and can speak from a position of authority. However, what we do know is that our prepandemic professional tools weren’t built for this challenge, nor were our minds and bodies. There is much research on the impact of sustained stress on the brain and body, also known as allostatic load. The intervention to address this stress is not simply positivity and a can-do attitude.

As an alternative to toxic positivity, we must eliminate the false dichotomy that we should always be positive or rest in a puddle of our gloom and doom. In contrast, we can be realistically optimistic. We can both acknowledge the trauma that everyone is going through and remain optimistic and grounded in our self-efficacy.

We are educators that can't do all things. But we can do some things.

Within the context of a school, that means we can acknowledge that things can be terribly hard and scary at times but also recognize that we know some real and effective measures to safeguard us. We know that getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and keeping some physical distance can keep us relatively safe in our schools. We know that healthy eating, adequate sleep, and regular exercise can do wonders for our physical and mental health. We know that we may not be able to do all that we know how to do to teach kids right now, but we can do some things.

We may not be able to squeeze in tight for a small-group lesson at the kidney table, but we can look at diagnostic data and respond to the various learning needs of students virtually or at a distance. We may not be able to offer warm embraces to all our students or colleagues right now, but we can listen with open hearts and wrap them in care. We can be optimistic knowing that the world and the struggles of humankind have been around for a long time and we have always made it through—sometimes a little bruised and worn, but we have always made it through.

Teachers and school leaders bear an incredible weight during “normal” times, and teaching and leading through this pandemic have been no exceptions. However, if we stay grounded by starting from where we are and doing what we can with the skills and resources we have, there is no need for shame or heroism. We are not victims. We are not superheroes. We are educators that can’t do all things. But we can do some things. We can be sad and we can be joyful. We can analyze student data late into the night and sometimes we can walk out of the building when the school bell rings.

So, leaders, at your next faculty or district meeting, resist the urge to offer the battle cry of “we can do hard things.” Resist the urge to judge the student or colleague having trouble navigating the current landscape. Instead, offer a listening ear and build a collective vision of a manageable today and even brighter tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as Toxic Positivity Has No Place in Schools


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