Embracing the Dark Side: The Perils of Toxic Positivity in Schools
Date Posted: 1/20/2022
Op-ed by David George, ATPE Managing Editor
As the pandemic rages on, personnel and supply shortages continue to plague schools, and morale is at an all-time low while the use of public schools as a political football seems to be at an all-time high. Amid all the chaos and uncertainty, educators naturally feel the frustration and are burning out. Although they do appreciate some reassurance, right now there is something that they need even more.
In the Star Wars movie franchise, heroes and villains were often drawn to the light or dark side of the force. The light side represents the positive, nurturing essence of life, while the dark side is associated with more sinister qualities. From the story, we learn that good people will naturally gravitate toward the light, but too much of a good thing can be its own problem.
Just as the Jedi Order battles the evil forces of the Sith, educators find themselves in a life-or-death struggle with the stresses of pandemic-era workloads. If this were a film, perhaps an encouraging quip from a Jedi master could make all the difference. But a feel-good action flick this is not. Once teachers pass a certain threshold of hardship, clichéd words of placation can actually do more harm than good.
When things get tough, we often encourage ourselves and others to find a silver lining in the situation, and this can inspire reflection and growth. But in this current context, we must first allow the storm to pass. There will be plenty of time for all of that later. For now, our best course of action is to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room: No matter how we phrase it, the challenges facing school communities are clearly miserable.
Supervisors also need to acknowledge the emotions and reactions these challenges can evoke. Sugarcoating communication with other educators is not a Jedi mind trick—it does not come off as optimistic and supportive. In fact, it can feel downright disingenuous and demeaning. When educators don’t feel heard—or feel they cannot even voice their concerns—these “positive” statements can create a toxic work environment where legitimate feelings are devalued.
UW Medicine, affiliated with the University of Washington, defines this "toxic positivity" as "dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy." Although this is generally a genuine attempt to cheer someone up, it can have the opposite effect.
Contrary to intention, toxic positivity does not relieve any stress, address problems, or promote resilience. It is a tone-deaf response to suffering that can have lasting negative effects. You can’t just ignore a wound and expect it to heal. It needs to be handled with the same care as any other trauma.
Educators are burdened enough right now. The expectation that they should stifle and veil their emotions when communicating with each other is not only unrealistic but also harmful. When repressed, negative emotions can manifest themselves in other, unhealthy ways. If educators can respectfully engage in meaningful dialogue, they can better support each other through this crisis.
Like the force, life is not always good or evil, happy or sad. Educators should not feel the need to always wear a permanent smile. They are people going through a difficult time, and we would be wise to listen to them, acknowledge their pain, and allow them to be honest about what they are experiencing.