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

by Lucille Carr-Kaffashan, PhD

Over the last 20 months, we have been bombarded with news about infection rates and death counts, lost jobs and closed businesses, children’s learning loss and developmental setbacks, conflicts over vaccination and mask mandates, supply chain issues, and a dizzying array of sometimes conflicting advice from health care experts. Amidst the cacophony of bad news, we have also been showered with lists of suggestions about coping with stress and self-care strategies.

Self-Care. We have all seen enough lists of seemingly simple strategies for self-care to last a lifetime. And, not surprisingly, we have found them wanting. It’s not that mindfulness and breathing exercises and physical activity and eating right and getting enough sleep and taking time for oneself are bad ideas. It’s that the reality of people’s lives can make these actions unattainable. And, as many employers are discovering in the aftermath of the pandemic, it’s that an individual approach to self-care is insufficient, and even insulting. Systemic, organizational, and cultural changes are ultimately what is required to enable individuals to engage in self-care.

Teacher Stress is Through the Roof

A simple search of the internet reveals an abundance of blogs and articles that speak to the extreme stress of our nation’s teachers, many of whom are in a state of physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion. Educators had been sounding alarm bells about the state of their profession long before the start of the pandemic, but evidence is growing that teacher burnout and demoralization have surged in the last year and a half, especially since the beginning of the 2021–22 academic year.

Teachers have been at the center of the pandemic storm. They have been hailed as heroes one minute for above-and-beyond efforts to keep students engaged in learning and criticized in the next for voicing COVID-19 safety concerns, for not being tech savvy enough, for being inflexible, for expressing the difficulty of juggling both online and in-person students and curricula. Add to this the public scrutiny over what and how they are teaching students about racial and economic inequities, and you have the perfect recipe for unprecedented numbers of teacher retirements and resignations.

As reported by The Washington Post, by the start of this school year at least 1,116 active and retired K-12 educators have died of COVID-19, at least 361 of whom were active teachers on the job. In addition to the deaths and resignations of teachers both directly and indirectly caused by COVID, there is also a shortage of aides and other essential school personnel. According to the Associated Press, “difficulties filling teacher openings have been reported in many states, including Tennessee, New Jersey and South Dakota. In the Mount Rushmore State, one district started the school year with 120 teacher vacancies. In Texas, districts in Houston, Waco and other neighborhoods reported teacher vacancies in the hundreds as the school year began. And a number of schools nationwide have had to temporarily shut down classrooms because there just weren’t enough teachers.”

Poor compensation and a widespread lack of respect, autonomy, and support have plagued the profession for years. The National Education Association (NEA) notes that “teachers are paid 20 percent less than other college-educated workers with similar experience. A 2020 survey found that 67 percent of teachers have or had a second job to make ends meet.” Adding insult to injury, over the last decade more and more responsibilities have been added to teachers’ already time-starved days, and the increased focus on accountability and data points have led teachers to feel micromanaged and disrespected.

A survey conducted in June by the NEA revealed that of the 2,690 respondents, 32 percent — 1 in 3 educators — said that the pandemic was likely to make them leave the profession earlier than expected. This combined with the fact that fewer young people are entering the profession signals an educational crisis that will persist well beyond the pandemic.

The Core Issues

As summarized by Jennifer Gonzalez in her October 19th Cult of Pedagogy article, the causes of teacher stress fall into three basic categories: Time, Trust, and Safety.

“Teachers have never had enough time to do their jobs well,” she notes, and the return to in-person learning this fall has only exacerbated this chronic problem. Many districts have prioritized the recovery of learning loss, with little attention paid to the extra demands being placed on teachers. These demands include complying with COVID-related safety requirements, conducting more assessments and screenings, supporting traumatized students, and covering extra classes because of staffing shortages.

In addition to the lack of time, many teachers feel that there is a lack of trust in their ability to conduct themselves as professionals. For example, school leaders typically require them to hand in detailed lesson plans, to document all interventions, and to attend professional development activities in settings where their participation can be verified.

Teachers also feel that both school leaders and community members have marginalized their safety concerns. In some states, they have had to fight to be prioritized for vaccination. They must contend with both administrators and parents who disregard COVID safety protocols. They are often kept in the dark about school COVID exposures and infections. And they are expected to somehow know how to manage the surge in student aggression in their classrooms.

As discussed in Education Week, “teachers of color are in a particularly tough spot, as they experience both the isolation of working alongside predominately white colleagues and the pressure of often feeling obligated to lead conversations at their schools about racism and inequities, on top of all their other responsibilities. This pressure has been heightened by the national reckoning on race, as well as the public debate over how the nation’s history with racism is taught.”

What are the Solutions?

Although exacerbated by the pandemic, the problems described above are long standing and complex. And as with all complex problems, the solutions are multifaceted and will take time to implement. There is some consensus, however, derived from research and from surveys of educators across the country, about what district leaders should consider to affect meaningful change.

Before discussing these suggestions, it is important to acknowledge that school administrators are themselves stressed beyond belief. They are struggling to meet the academic and mental health needs of students, to support and retain high quality teachers, to appease parents and school boards, and to follow state and federal mandates. Most are sincere in their efforts to address everyone’s needs, while at the same time recognizing that the various stakeholders have different and sometimes opposing priorities. With this in mind, here are some “do’s” and “don’ts” to consider for addressing teacher burnout.

What Will Not Help

  • 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.

What Can Help

  • 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.

A Word for Teachers

Teachers themselves are encouraged to look at their own behavior and how they contribute to the culture that maintains a chronic state of burnout. Teacher advocates recommend:

  • 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

In summary, the pandemic has brought into focus the need to re-conceptualize self-care within a systemic framework. As neuropsychologist Dr. Laura Boxley has noted, we “have top-down pressures on self-care. What is our work culture? Social culture? Work flexibility? During the pandemic, the many competing demands on our time have moderated our ability to advocate and take care of ourselves — often in unequal ways across occupations and socioeconomic status. We need to consider both bottom-up and top-down perspectives of self-care. You don’t have to quit yoga. You don’t have to quit eating well. But also consider how groups, organizations, employers, and governments play a role in our access and implementation of self-care strategies and work-life integration … We have been able to hobble through the pandemic because individuals shouldered the weight of systemic failures. The lesson we should take from that is that we can no longer neglect these systemic pressures in self-care on the individual.”

References:

4 questions for Laura Boxley (apa.org)

https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-not-ok-even-though-we-need-them-to-be/2021/09

Are Teachers OK? No, and Toxic Positivity Isn’t Helping (weareteachers.com)

EdResearch_for_Recovery_Brief_19.pdf (brown.edu)

Teachers Are Barely Hanging On. Here’s What They Need. | Cult of Pedagogy

Teachers Have Reached a Breaking Point. But Remedies Do Exist. | EdSurge News

https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/10/20/teachers-are-not-okay/

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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.

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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.

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