During the pandemic, teachers who are already stressed and spread thinner than ever are speaking out about “toxic positivity.” In March 2020, high school English teacher Irene Yannascoli walked into a faculty meeting filled with bright decorations, icebreaker games, words of affirmation and even the screening of a TED talk titled “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” This was when schools first started considering online learning options in the face of crippling uncertainty about the looming pandemic. With glitter and uplifting messages, Irene’s faculty meeting sugarcoated and dismissed the shared but unspoken anxiety, fear and apprehension among educators. This type of extreme positivity has been prevalent in schools’ social atmospheres, and it is reaching a peak during this pandemic era. This atmosphere glosses over and invalidates teachers’ emotional demands — which necessitate particular attention amid the challenges of COVID-19.
Many teachers in the United States have recently expressed anger about this phenomenon. “Toxic positivity” describes the struggle of forcing yourself to embody the “good vibes only” mantra while feeling like your life is falling apart. According to one psychological definition, toxic positivity is an insincere act that can “silence negative emotions, demean grief and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling.”
Although comments such as “just think more positively” and “it could be worse” are often well-intended, toxic positivity can cause physical and mental damage to those who endure it. By promoting the suppression of emotions like disappointment and sadness, toxic positivity shuts down empathetic communication. This leads to increased stress levels and even compromised immunity. Teachers’ anger around toxic positivity is a cry for help that demands real action over colorful, dismissive words amid crippling financial pressure, overwhelming workloads and emotional stress.
School administrators practice toxic positivity at least in part because it is an easy, light-hearted smokescreen that masks long-standing structural problems that are too difficult to solve. Why bother addressing insufficient payment and school funding, teachers’ stress from COVID-19, overwork and feelings of underappreciation when you could just say, “it’s going to be fine, we’re in this together”?
This is not to mention the extra mental stress placed upon teachers by the pandemic: adjusting to ever-changing mask regulations, communicating with concerned parents and keeping up with students who are in quarantine. Despite putting in extra time and effort, many teachers still find themselves struggling with a pervasive sense of helplessness stemming from the unmanageable amount of responsibility they shoulder both inside and outside the classroom. In a CBS interview, Stephanie Woolley-Larrera, a teacher at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami, shared her experience with hybrid teaching: “A lot of (students) were going through so much in their own homes and we had no vocabulary for a lot of this and training for doing this. (Administrators) would tell us to prioritize mental health, but how?” And with all of these combined stressors, teachers are experiencing severe burnout and anxiety. Although some districts are trying to help by hosting yoga classes, counseling sessions or mental health webinars, the sources of teachers’ stress persist.
A recent article by former teacher Julia Mason voices the frustration surrounding the uselessness of toxic positivity: Beyond acts of appreciation, Mason argues that teachers would benefit more from “adequate prep time during contract hours to plan,” sufficient salaries that allow them to “focus on one job instead of looking for a second to supplement” and “school cultures that don’t center on toxic positivity, but teachers’ physical and mental health.” A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that many teachers are finding it harder to focus during the pandemic. And out of those who have diffculty focusing, 37% reported experiencing symptoms of depression and 31% reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety. But since greater prep time, increased salaries and a school culture that confronts the reality of teachers’ hardships cannot be achieved overnight, it is much easier to slap a “good vibes only” sticker on it all. This cover-up has never truly worked and is a glaringly inadequate — and frankly disrespectful — response to teachers struggling and reaching out for help under current circumstances.
If toxic positivity has been in school cultures for a long time, why are the teachers calling it out now, of all times? The answer is simple: They’ve had enough. If we keep ignoring their rage and covering it with positivity, we may lose many of our educators. The alarming nationwide shortage of teachers has only been exacerbated by the pandemic: The CDC survey shows 53% of teachers thinking of quitting more than they had before the pandemic. In Providence, throughout the 2021 calendar year alone, almost 10% of teachers have resigned. Investment in education has been chronically insufficient since the recession in 2008, placing financial stress on teachers. To curb this trend, we need to tear away the mask of toxic positivity and validate the hardships they face, both during and after the pandemic. School districts need to relieve as many COVID-related concerns from teachers as possible. This means establishing clear communications about mask and vaccination policies, providing efficient technological support and attending to teachers’ needs more broadly. Many also suggest taking a holistic approach to staff wellness, which can draw inspiration from the “whole child” model that emphasizes the social, physical and emotional needs of each student.
So let’s listen to teachers’ anger and address the problems underlying their stress. We can start by throwing away all the positivity posters, stickers and bright decorations that stand in for genuine responses to burnout and unsustainable work conditions.