Staying Positive, Without the Toxic Positivity - A Teacher Survival Guide
It is rough out there. In here. Everywhere. It is soul-crushingly hard to wake up every morning to hear that this pandemic still rages on with no end in sight and no plan ahead, political smear campaigns, truth and lies, coming at us faster than we can process, and disasters close to home. Fires rage all around California, leaving a heavy orange and black sky and a thick layer of ash everywhere around me - a reminder that people are not only struggling on a global scale, but in my own backyard—just to survive. It is literally feeling apocalyptic.
It is so difficult sometimes to open my computer, sit down with my cup of coffee and take on my day. And I couldn’t imagine how exponentially difficult, if not damn near impossible, it would feel having to do open my computer to a virtual room full of kiddos and put on a happy face for them, driving, motivating, inspiring, and being a voice of security and calm and “normalcy” right now.
You are freaking exhausted. And fed up. And pissed. And frustrated. And have had enough “positivity” and messages to “fill your cup first.” You just want to cry. Or vent. Or scream. Or completely give up. Or E) All of the above. I have never heard of so many teachers rail against “toxic positivity” as I have recently. Even the thought of this post may be triggering to you. And you are right. It feels like that right now.
Toxic Positivity is not a new concept. But when you are really not feeling positive—or when you want to completely give up, seeing that quintessential cat poster reminding you to “Hang in there” might send you over the edge. According to thepsychologygroup.com, Toxic Positivity shows up as masking your true feelings, stuffing or dismissing emotions, feeling guilty about your true feelings, and more. In essence, the way this positivity becomes toxic is by ignoring or dismissing emotions or feelings —whether they are your own or someone else’s. Anytime we “stuff” something down, by holding back our voice, our feelings, our desires, our thoughts, we are disallowing or denying ourselves basic emotional expression. Telling others "it could be worse," or constantly "you got this" can be damaging. Because teachers honestly, sometimes don't feel as if it could be worse. And often feel they don't "got this."
So why is everyone so sick and tired of positivity right now? Why does everything seem like it can be labeled as “toxic positivity” everywhere we turn? Because we are living daily in what is physically, emotionally, and psychologically the opposite right now. We are drained. We are on overload. Tension is high. And we are living in a state of crisis. When you are simply struggling to keep your head above water, the last thing you want to hear is “be sure to breathe” or “be sure you are filling your cup first.” At this point, it probably feels like that fucking cup is being used to empty the water from the wrecked dingy you’re trying not to sink to the bottom of the lake in!
So how do you keep your head above water, for real? First, there is nothing wrong with being positive. And, there is nothing wrong with not wanting to get sucked into the vortex of negativity that so many people are struggling with. The way to allow yourself to be positive in a healthy way, is to allow yourself to experience your experience. What does that mean? It means to allow yourself to experience what you are actually feeling. Without guilt, without beat-up, without judgement. Allow yourself to experience what you need to feel so that you can move on from it when you are ready. To do this, you get to experience all the feelings, and that starts with acknowledging what is really happening. Seeing and really taking in all of it.
First, think about how much further you are in this process than when you began, whether that was six months ago or six weeks ago. How little you knew…and look at you now. Think about all the hours you have spent researching, and modifying and rewriting your materials, and learning Google Classroom, and Zoom, and meeting with colleagues over Zoom, and watching Teacher TikTok for tips…all the while, listening to a similar voice across that country that resonates with you and says “do you hear me?” Do you still have more to learn? Always. Will you mess up? Of course! But look how far you’ve come. It is important that you see that, and that you acknowledge that.
Next, I want you to give yourself a moment to acknowledge all that you do, everyday. In this moment, think about what you do, and what you put up with, and what you endure, or manage, or even crawl through, or get through kicking and screaming. You are doing it. You are making it happen, however messy and ugly, or beautiful, or disastrous, or cringe-worthy. It is OK. You are doing the best you can with what you have been given, under the circumstances you are facing. You are a damn hero. Remember that. Even if you had your curriculum planned out for the last 10 years, and it is brilliant and refined and perfectly designed for distance learning and has all the bells and whistles and loveliness, NONE of this was designed to be delivered in the middle of a pandemic. So yes, acknowledge yourself for all that you do, every single day.
Finally, let all you are doing to survive right now flow over you like a wave. Take a moment to think about who all this is for—your students, who are fighting their own battles. You are a light in their world, and you just showing up, day after day, however it looks, will be remembered for a lifetime. They will never forget being across from you on a screen, as you simply showed up for them at one of the most difficult times in their lives. When they can’t see their friends, or have birthday parties. Or when they are in tears because they can’t go Trick-or-Treating and they are “soooo sick of this, and why can’t things to be normal again?” (a snippet of a conversation I had last night with my 11yo). You are there, day after day, when their parents have lost their jobs, or when loved ones took sick. You are there, day after day, even when it’s hard for them, and they are struggling. You are there for them, even when you may have your own family to take care of. You are there for them, even when they can’t show up for themselves.
Until we have the strength and wherewithal to affect real systemic change in education, we have got to start acknowledging ourselves, and allowing ourselves room to breathe, and grow, and learn.
As human beings, not as invincible superheroes.
So I am going to encourage you to breathe. Or cry. Or scream into a pillow or up at the sky at the top of your friggin’ lungs as loud as you possibly can when you need to. Give yourself that space to have a breakdown. Allow yourself that time to literally get it out of your body. Allow yourself to experience all that you are experiencing. Acknowledge yourself, every single day. And then when you are ready, dust yourself off, and get back out there and do what you've been called to do, as only you can.