New York-based English teacher Irene Yannascoli was already drained after jumpstarting distance learning in March 2020 and facing uncertain school plans for the fall. So when Irene had to come into school to have in-person meetings about whether or not school buildings would be reopening, she felt even more depleted.
“I had a lot of concerns on a lot of levels: the condition of my old school building, [and] whether I was going to have the support or the PPE to do my job properly and safely,” she said.
What she had experienced was in stark contrast to the meeting’s tone: bright decorations, icebreaker questions and energetic affirmations about how hard the school and staff were working. They all seemed out of place in what had been an extremely challenging year.
Then, her school leaders sat the staff down to watch Kelly McGonigal’s 2013 TED Talk entitled “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” It’s a well-intentioned video about how reframing one’s mindset towards stress can lessen its negative effects on a person’s health.
But to Yannascoli, these were all displays of toxic positivity – a phenomenon that was acute during the COVID-19 pandemic – in which people focus on the good and reject the bad in a way that is unrealistic and borders on gaslighting. Even though positivity and optimism are good things, many teachers, including Irene, were tired of being complimented while being told they have to do twice the work and risk their lives with almost no structural support. Irene wasn't trying to criticize her administrator because she knew everyone was trying their best and no one was prepared for teaching during a pandemic. But she was concerned by this attention to mindset.*
“Everything was framed in such an overwhelmingly positive way that I felt really alone and really unheard,” says Yannascoli. “I'm a senior person in the school and I was completely unable to lead because I couldn't function in the framework that they had created.”
These feelings aren’t necessarily new. Teachers typically fall into – or are forced into – the teacher martyr stereotype. And studies have found that Black and brown teachers are doubly burdened because they are both dealing with their own grief and stress while showing up to support students of color who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Toxic positivity can also harm students, according to Arlène Elizabeth Casimir, an elementary school teacher who taught in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and saw how blind optimism rolled down from teacher to classroom to student. “The way the teachers were being treated, that's how they were treating kids,” says Casimir. “They were being told to be gracious with the kids, to understand what they're going through, [but] it's like that wasn't being offered to them.”
“Tired, Stressed, Overwhelmed”
One commonality between these two events is that teachers were told to ignore their emotions. However, those emotions can help teachers maintain their boundaries and keep toxic positivity at bay. Teachers and school leaders can develop strategies to ensure their staff are recognizing and navigating challenges in a way that promotes health and authentic healing for all.
Centering teachers' emotions is a critical step that many schools miss in their focus on productivity and positivity, says consultant and educator Elena Aguilar.
“I think there is no other conversation which has greater potential for freedom, for figuring out how we can serve kids, living the kind of lives we want to live, having the kinds of relationships we want to have than having that conversation about emotions,” says Aguilar.
She says emotions are educators’ “greatest untapped resource” because they provide information about growth areas and important boundaries.
“If you ask a teacher, 'How are you doing today' or 'How are you feeling?' Eighty five or ninety percent of the time the response I hear is one of three words,” says Aguilar. “Tired, stressed, overwhelmed.”
According to Aguilar those aren’t even words that describe a singular emotion. “Those are words that describe a whole ‘stew’ of emotions.” She says in this case, overwhelmed is the stew and its ingredients are sadness, frustration, emotional fatigue, confusion and fear.
When teachers can unpack the emotions in their “stew” they can be better informed to figure out what actions they want to take next. However, when strong emotions are at play it can be easy for someone to be reactive. To develop next steps that are aligned with their values, Aguilar recommends teachers ask themselves, “What action can I take in the moment that is one that I'm going to feel really good about tonight, in 10 years, when I retire?”
School leaders also have an important role in helping teachers. Principals can make it a priority to check in with teachers during everyday interactions like walking down the hall. Instead of asking “How are you doing?” school leaders should make an effort to connect with teachers by asking deeper and more specific questions. For example, a school leader might say, “I know you had a rough week last week. What has been coming up for you?”
Student-centered Learning to Meet Kids' Needs
When Arlène Casimir was teaching during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she experienced a school system that wanted teachers to put on a brave face for young students. It didn’t work. “And teachers were having nervous breakdowns. There was not a time to pause and witness what was happening to us,” says Casimir. “I often asked myself, 'Who takes care of the caretakers? Who nurtures the nurturers?'”
Casimir focused on how taking care of herself enabled her to show up better for her students. She directed her attention towards “inner work,” namely cultivating her core values of integrity and authenticity. She examined how her lived experience, culture and past school experiences shape the way that she shows up in the classroom. Instead of trying to ignore her experiences or sidestep her values, she paid attention to the ways that they aligned with community needs. She asked herself “Where do I need to get a better understanding or make adjustments?” and “Where are my students affirming those core values? And where are they challenging them?”
When Casimir was a student and there was a disaster or tragedy reported in the news, she remembers feeling as if there was no space to grieve or process in the classroom, so she made sure her students felt as if they could be honest about their experiences.
“There's a lot that we can learn from kids as adults," she says. "We can use our experience and wisdom from being an adult to help children process, learn from and notice all that they bring to the table.”
Civic Education and Healing
Much like how toxic positivity can overlook the real experiences teachers are having, for students, that can look like character education – such as grit, optimism, self control, curiosity and gratitude – especially when they’re disproportionately pushed on Black and brown children, according to educator and author Dr. Bettina Love. In her book, “We Want To Do More Than Survive,” Love says that having good character isn’t a bad thing, but it can be when it becomes a tool to enforce compliance.
In order to recognize and sidestep these harmful practices, Dr. Love promotes abolitionist teaching, which encourages young people to participate in civics education, because for too long, schools have been failing many children, specifically Black and brown students, who are erased in curricula and disciplined at higher rates. “A robust civics education should include discussion focused on current events, opportunities for students to participate in school government, history, law, economics and geography,” writes Love.
One way abolitionist teaching is taking shape is at Ki Gross’s Woke Kindergarten, which is based on their experiences as a kindergarten teacher in New York.
In 2016, Gross’s kindergarten class took to the halls of their school to protest the results of the 2016 election. Inspired by Audrey Faye, the Civil Rights Movement’s youngest marcher, they made signs with popsicle sticks and cardstock and walked up all seven floors of their school.
The students felt that issues directly affecting their families like immigration and healthcare were hanging in the balance. Gross made space for them to air out their concerns by taking action. Civic action practices like a march through the halls of a school are empowering because it shows students that they aren’t just victims of their circumstance, according to Gross. They have an important role to play in shaping their own futures and creating a more just world.
“Part of abolition is really about thriving, not about just survival anymore,” says Gross about how abolitionist teaching practices empower students to get active if they feel something is unjust. “Existing in survivalist mode really gets you thinking about the trauma. But when you're thinking about thriving, you're thinking about the healing.” Gross specifically focuses on uplifting counternarratives for Black, brown, queer and trans students. “Because our stories are not just stories of death and hurt and pain. In actuality, our stories are that of brilliance and joy.”
“What's important here is that we don't stay in that sadness. We make space for that sadness to exist,” says Gross. Acknowledging emotions – even if the emotion is sadness – might even provide a roadmap for how to create conditions for actual positivity.
*Editors note: This article was updated to include more information about Yannascoli's experience in school.