Skip the Toxic Positivity: A Practical Self-Care Guide for Teachers

  • While “wear your jeans to work” days and offering coffee and donuts occasionally are nice employee appreciation efforts, they do nothing to address the underlying issues.
  • Avoid offering one-shot seminars or newsletters that offer suggestions about individual self-care activities (breathing exercises, exercise, time for self, etc.). These can inadvertently place a further burden on teachers, conveying that they are responsible for both creating and addressing the stress that is structural in nature.
  • Don’t conduct teacher surveys or focus groups about how to reduce teacher stress and then proceed to ignore their suggestions about what would make things better.
  • Don’t assume that short bursts of extra time (e.g., ending a meeting early to give teachers more time) is useful. Small, unexpected pieces of free time do not help teachers catch up with work that requires concentration and focus.
  • Avoid banners and pep talks about how great teachers are unless these are backed-up with substantive organizational changes.
  • Don’t avoid difficult conversations to address the performance problems of individual teachers by making blanket statements/warnings to all teachers, most of whom are not engaging in the problem behavior.
  • Be careful not to adopt a stance of “Toxic Positivity”, that is, a stance that accentuates the positive (“we are all in this together”, “we are strong”, “it could be worse”, “look on the bright side”) while invalidating the very real pain that everyone is experiencing. Denying or ignoring unpleasant emotions tends to make them worse, not better.
  • Engage teachers in problem solving teams to identify and implement substantive ways to give teachers more time. Examples include cutting back on testing and data analysis; holding fewer and shorter meetings; putting a hold on new academic initiatives while increasing mental health initiatives conducted by school-based mental health professionals; hiring individuals who can assist with administrative tasks; compensating teachers for extra work; protecting classroom time by minimizing interruptions; reducing teaching hours to allow for more prep time and follow-up time.
  • Treat teachers like the professionals that they are. Increase trust by decreasing micromanagement, for example, by eliminating the requirement for all teachers to submit detailed lesson plans or reducing unnecessary accountability documentation. Shadow multiple teachers for a day to experience first-hand the reality of their days. Allow teachers the option to attend meetings and professional development activities virtually. Address staff performance issues on an individual basis rather than issuing global reprimands that don’t apply to most teachers.
  • Make safety a priority by rigorously enforcing COVID-19 protocols and being more transparent about possible staff and student exposures. Appoint an accountable work team to analyze school-based aggression and to implement protocols that are designed to create a safer environment.
  • Communicate directly, clearly, and frequently.
  • Involve teachers in the creation of targeted professional development activities that are the most meaningful for them.
  • Ask teachers about what specific help they need to improve classroom management.
  • Engage the Board of Education in developing a plan to increase teacher compensation over time, taking into account that many administrative and clerical tasks that are now required of teachers might ultimately be delegated to less highly compensated individuals.
  • Advocate at the local, state, and national levels to re-assess burdensome testing and data collection requirements.
  • Create a culture of work-life balance. Recognize measurable indications of quality teaching rather than behaviors that signal a “more is better” approach (always coming in early and staying late, volunteering for everything, talking about working all weekend to catch up, etc.).
  • Commit to achieving racial and social justice within the school community. This will benefit students and families and decrease turnover and dissatisfaction among educators of color. As noted by Dr. Laura Boxley, “The people most in need of self-care resources are often the people who have the hardest time accessing them. For example, members of marginalized communities and underrepresented groups tend to have limited professional power or influence while shouldering significant social, financial, and occupational stressors. There are hundreds of self-care books out there, but they can’t help you if you don’t have time to read them. And even if you get the chance to read them, not all concerns about self-care and balance are things that the individual has direct control over.”
  • Counteract toxic positivity by acknowledging that teachers are hurting and need space to grieve the many losses associated with the pandemic.
  • Ask teachers what mental health or other supports they need to cope with their own distress. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of introducing trauma-informed strategies, including an emphasis on compassion fatigue and secondary trauma, as well as mindfulness strategies that are part of institutionalized wellness routines.
  • Assess student mental health needs and create or enhance the district’s mental health Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Having student mental health resources onsite can help relieve teachers who are ill equipped to address the myriad of mental health symptoms that students are exhibiting.
  • Consider how pandemic relief funding might help the district achieve some of the actions discussed above.
  • Re-assess boundaries. Remind yourself frequently (in all areas of life) that it is OK to say “no”
  • Stop consistently showing up early and staying late, and wearing this as a badge of honor
  • Stop taking work wherever you go
  • Stop saying “yes” to more work than you think you can handle or that falls outside of contracted hours
  • Let go of the 24/7 narrative about a teacher’s life
  • Teaching is a profession and a mission, and also a job and it’s ok to see it that way

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Effective School Solutions

Effective School Solutions

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Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.