One of the most interesting and polarizing concepts in education that has popped up in recent years is the notion of “toxic positivity”. Healthline.com reports that with toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Instead, positivity and happiness are compulsively pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences are denied, minimized, or invalidated.
Toxic positivity has made its way into every profession over the past several years, but none as prevalent as in education. Social media has given a worldwide platform for so-called “edu celebrities” to share messages of toxic positivity with educators everywhere. These messages do not reflect the real feelings of teachers and administrators who are working directly with students on a daily basis and feel the stress, heartbreak, and pressure of the work. Furthermore, the messages that are blasted over social media tend to be vague and without any real merit. For example, I participated in a Twitter chat where an “edu celebrity” was moderating the questions and responding to participants. A teacher asked a question about best ways to engage with a reluctant learner who was withdrawn and stand-offish. The “edu celebrity” gave a vague answer, not tied to research or best practice. When pressed for more information by the teacher, the reply that was given was: “Be more awesome.”
Yes. “Be more awesome.”
Educators need to share best practices, rooted in research, that are tied to results, not messages that invoke toxic positivity.
No one enters the field of education as a means to make lots of money. The starting salaries for other professions that require similar education (a college degree, plus additional certification) are often the same as the top of a pay scale for a teacher. I recently came across the starting salary of a teacher in Colorado. A new teacher in Colorado can expect to make around $35,000 a year. Keep in mind that Zillow indicates that the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Denver area is $1604. Let’s also keep in mind that the starting pay at McDonalds is currently between $15-$18 per hour. A full time, starting employee at McDonalds can expect to make around $34,320 per year. No, teachers don’t work for the income, but they shouldn’t be forced to make a salary that is only slightly better than minimum wage. Teachers need to be paid like the professionals they are. Stop selling t-shirts that try to make this disparity acceptable as there are thousands of teachers out there that are having trouble paying their bills.
We have all seen the perfect classroom pictures posted and reported on social media. Called IG or Pinterest ready classrooms, these pictures are posted to show everyone how amazing a teacher’s classroom looks. That is the key: how it looks. Most of these pictures have a fatal flaw: they are not functional. They also don’t look “perfect” five minutes after students enter the classroom. Teachers need to see functionality, not perceived physical perfection. Furthermore, classroom decor can also reflect inequalities in budgets between schools and teachers. The new teacher in Colorado won’t be able to go out and afford to purchase additional decor for their classroom as they will have enough trouble making their rent payment.
All students deserve to be greeted at the door by their teacher with a “Good Morning” and a smile. Students need to feel welcome in their classroom and comfortable with their surroundings. Classrooms need to be places of positive vibes. However, the trend of the super long dance routine / individual greetings are not needed or realistic. In speaking to some of the teachers that have posted videos of themselves on IG and Twitter greeting each student individually with their own personalized handshake, many of them have indicated that they stopped this practice after a week or two as it got to be too cumbersome and time consuming. One also must ask the questions, “Who is filming this and why was this filmed in the first place?” The answer is that these videos are self serving and are perfect for social media, but are another example of toxic positivity in schools.
The notion of toxic positivity has been long discussed in regards to social media. Recently, Instagram has been under fire for being harmful to children as it showcases an unrealistic notion of perfection and what a child should look / act like. The same principle applies to toxic positivity in education with intricate dance routines and unrealistic notions of perfection.
Don’t get me wrong. Schools need positivity. However, educators shouldn’t bury their heads in the sand and pretend that everything is alright. Educators are facing real problems, both on the student side and on the personal side. Demands upon teachers are growing every year. No longer able to just teach content, teachers are now also serving as counselors, statisticians, nurses, and surrogate parents. They are doing this all on a teacher’s salary, which for some is just north of minimum wage. Students are also facing more obstacles than ever before as the pandemic continues to expose academic and technology access gaps in education. Teachers who feel tired, ignored, and discouraged shouldn’t be shunned for speaking up or for speaking their truth.
We are at a crossroads in education. A cnbc.com article reports that before the pandemic, researchers estimated that one out of six American teachers was likely to leave the profession. New survey data from the nonprofit RAND Corporation suggests that now one out of four teachers is considering quitting after this school year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, almost all 50 states reported shortages for the 2020-2021 school year and the numbers aren’t looking any better for the 2021-2022 school year.
Let’s stop all the toxic positivity and look at education for where it is and have discussions about where it needs to go. This can’t be solved with a dance or a vague, upbeat response on social media, but through true collaboration between all stakeholders, setting realistic expectations, demanding proper funding and compensation, and holding ourselves accountable.
Dr. David Franklin is District Strategy Consultant for Nearpod, an experienced school administrator, education professor, curriculum designer, published author and presenter and has presented at national and international education conferences.