Person with a candle for a head that is melting.

By Rachel A.

It’s very en vogue right now to call out toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is essentially dismissing negative emotions and responding to difficult situations with an overly positive mindset. It is especially prevalent in the teaching profession, with teachers expected to push anything negative or upsetting regarding teaching to the back burner. Toxic positivity in teaching is problematic and should not be the norm.

Toxic Positivity and Teaching

My intention today is for you to see exactly what toxic positivity is and how it works in the teaching profession.

Dear Leader calls for a staff meeting. Things are not going well; state test scores are down, behavior problems are up and parents are unhappy. Dear Leader looks out at you with plaintive eyes and says, “We need to do better.”

Then Dear Leader tells a story from their time in teaching and reads a letter from a past student and eyes all around the room brim with tears at the thought of the impact that teachers can have.

Man laying on table with lower half of his body in smoke.

“A Great Teacher is Like a Candle”

Next, a PowerPoint slide that says, “A great teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.”

This is a red flag moment.

Dry your tears, stop imagining yourself as the hero who saves a kid’s life or the recipient of the lovely thank you letter; you are in real danger and I’m not even kidding.

  • First, a Human Candle is a commodity that is used up and then disposed of. Do you keep the melted wax or leftover wick once a candle has burned down? No, of course not. It is thrown away, and you will be too.
  • Second, the role of the Human Candle is to be destroyed by the system. Not only is your destruction sure to happen, but it is also required and your job is to facilitate it in order to “light the way.”
  • Third, your only perceived value is in how bright you shine as you burn up. Should you dare to not burn as brightly as expected, others will outshine you. Then where will you be and what will happen? There’s one thing that’s for sure: your job is even less secure now.

Toxic Positivity is Harming Teachers

This is how toxic positivity is ruining the lives of our teachers.

Dear Leaders across the country are expecting this destructive level of emotional, physical, and intellectual sacrifice. But why? Because it’s what makes the system work. If you can emotionally abuse, gaslight, and manipulate people into working countless hours, and sacrificing their personal lives but most importantly, internalizing the failures of a broken system, you have a perpetual motion machine that runs the system.

You never have to think about fixing that system because for a relatively small economic cost (compared to completely rebuilding the broken system), you keep the wheels turning, the kids babysat, the textbook and standardized test companies in business, and the professional development circuit populated.

But this has to stop. Yesterday.

Large chalkboard that says Hell no!!!

Setting Emotional Boundaries

In the meantime, teachers must set emotional boundaries. Instead of agreeing with everything pushed on them by admin and saying yes to extra obligation, it’s time for teachers to say no.

“No, I can’t purchase those class supplies out of my own pocket.”

“No, I can’t stay until after 6 o’clock to meet with that parent.”

“No, I didn’t get every paper graded last night.”

And I can hear you, as I write this, screaming, “I’ll be written up!” or “I’ll get a poor evaluation!” or “I’ll lose my job!” This is most likely not true; teachers have contracts with rights and responsibilities that are clearly outlined. Human Candles don’t use those contracts to set boundaries because deep down we fear Dear Leader won’t think we’re pretty and bright anymore. And you’re right, they won’t.

So what’s the upside to giving up your “calling” as a Human Candle but staying on as a Teacher? You’re free. Free to use your personal days, free to work contracted hours, free to save a majority of the love in your heart for your family, partners, pets or house plants. You can have the time and energy to exercise, take up a hobby, adopt a dog, learn to square dance, and do all the things that Non-Candle Humans get to do. You are no longer a prisoner of Dear Leader’s toxic desire to use you to prop up a broken system until you are destroyed by the sheer weight of the task.

If we all did this tomorrow, and we all drew a line in the sand, they would fix the system because it won’t work without us.

So carry on, but refuse to burn down.

White smiling drama mask floating on top of a white button up shirt.

Teaching with Toxic Positivity

Have you experienced toxic positivity in your time teaching? We’d love to hear your opinions on the matter in the comments below!

If you have a lot on your mind and want to connect with other teachers, head to our Vent forum to share your thoughts in a safe and anonymous space.

Author Bio

Rachel A. is a middle school math teacher who is done with all the toxic positivity in schools.

Teacher Misery is happy to feature guest writers to provide its readers with a well-rounded view of the US educational system. If you are interested in writing a featured article for us, please email us at or fill out the information on our Contact Page.

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  1. Angel Lee July 27, 2022 at 8:29 am

    I have had it with the toxic positivity. I am in a non-union state, and we have no protections, so we are even more afraid to say no. We are required to work 3 athletic events, at the gate or concessions, for free. We are required to attend concerts and plays in the evening. But the final straw for me was a recent meeting about PBIS implementation. As usual, the state and county handed down a mandate that PBIS must be implemented, and it came with zero funding, but it only works when kids get rewards. We were just expected to figure it out. When begging for money from local businesses didn’t cover it, they came to teachers and asked everyone to donate money to fund a state mandate! I pointed out in the meeting that we should not HAVE to fund a mandate – and as long as we keep doing it, they’ll keep expecting it. My AP was present in the meeting. A day later, we get an email from the principal saying (direct quote) “Those of you who have expressed that you do not feel you should give for our students, we ask that you do not. It is important that you give because that is what you want to do.” This is the most manipulative crap I have ever been subjected to, and I knew it was aimed at me and the one other teacher who spoke up. This is abuse, and there is nothing we can do about it because we have no union and no representation.

  2. Carla Bentley July 28, 2022 at 8:25 am

    So true! I left the only profession I thought I’d ever be a part of in 2020 because of toxic positivity and unrealistic expectations. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. High five!

  3. Courtney July 28, 2022 at 11:03 pm

    I am a “Dear Leader” as you have labeled administration and please know not all of us expect our teachers to sacrifice their mental and physical health for the profession. In fact, I encourage my teachers to create healthy boundaries and I will die on any hill to support them so they can be their best selves for our most precious commodity. So much so that I have become the candle

  4. Cynthia Masters July 31, 2022 at 10:52 am

    I worked in a school for many more years than I should have where this atmosphere existed. I saw many teachers endure divorces because they spent far too many hours outside their contract at school. I even saw many of their own children neglected due to mom/dad making their implementation of the next best thing the best in the school. I refuse to sacrifice my family for a job. I finally said, “I’m done and this is enough!” 38% of the staff followed my lead….not proud of that because my decision was based on my own refusal to allow the toxic positivity to steal one more moment of my life. I was shocked as I completed that contract of how I was treated after giving so much of my time and talents to that particular school. Those teachers that moved on have unanimously been shocked at what a weight was lifted moving to a teaching position in a school where the administrator did not pit teachers against one another, but truly was interested in their teachers performing at their best because they were afforded the down time to be human and put their families first without judgement or ridicule.

  5. Rhonda Nachtigall July 31, 2022 at 12:16 pm

    Courtney, as the “Dear Leader” how do you support your teachers? I know my “Leader” says this, but I don’t see them supporting because they don’t even know what goes on in their own school let alone my classroom? How do you support when you don’t know your staff?

  6. Thomas Smith June 20, 2023 at 1:00 pm

    I left the industry after eight years because of the toxic environment. The system is so broken it’s sickening. The policy makers seem to have no accountability, never mind any teaching experience. They like to parade around wearing the “educator” cape merely for being affiliated with education. It’s my opinion that policy makers, those on boards of education (at least at the state levels), need teachers on the committee. In Massachusetts the board is governor appointed with the tiniest thread linking them to education. Perhaps a specific number of teachers, not just educators, need to be appointed. I would also like some of those teachers to be from low-income districts. Thank you teachers for what you do. It’s time for a change.

  7. Lisa W June 21, 2023 at 1:03 am

    I had a principal who was toxically positive. That song from The Lego Movie “Everything is Awesome” was her theme song. She had us read a book called “The Energy Bus”. Based on this book if you didn’t turn all things positive and fake it till you make it, you were an “energy vampire”. It’s not ok to push people to stuff down all their negative feelings and to swallow your pain. But that’s what was expected. If you didn’t then basically you did not fit in with her.

  8. Ernest June 22, 2023 at 7:46 am

    As one of those “Dear Leader” I don’t think teachers understand that campus admins are under the same pressures that teachers are and exposed to the same toxicity.

    I ran a brand new HS for five years, with a “veteran AP” that was kind and friendly but moved there to “do less harm” so practically ran the campus with a Skelton crew of teachers, counselor and myself; point is we were working our tails off to see amazing results from our students graduating and entering the workforce with 6 figure careers in welding and automotive fields, some entering college paths that never seemed possible, amazing love and support from parents, business partners, and community and the superintendent came in and stated, “you seem worn out and maybe not a good fit for this job” and I said, “yes I am exhausted trying to do great things for the kids and running a one-man show.” He gave the “dedication” speech and “commitment” stories and “my struggles as a campus admin” and then transferred me to an associate role elsewhere in the district; only to give the amazing students and campus to a first year Admin that happened to be from “local royalty.” I left that district to become a curriculum director, lots less stress and I have been real with the admins I work with….family first and encourage them to take time and leave work on time. Because once you exhaust yourself, argue with your wife because you work too much, you kids claim “you love your students more than us”, etc. just to be replaced.

    I miss those students and thanks to Facebook they reach out to me about how they miss me. The poor replacement has struggled all year and the assistance superintendent has had to run the campus.

  9. Tracey June 22, 2023 at 9:09 pm

    Unfortunately, both for teachers and Dear Leaders toxic positivity is very true and very prevalent. Ask yourself who matters? It should always be 1. Yourself 2. Your loved ones, 3. Your students. The others? Screw’em. Close the door and reach/teach those who want and need it. With the dire shortage of teachers, we have some leverage now to say no! Will you really lose your job? The bigger Dear Leaders (politicians)don’t care if public education goes down the drain. They will continue to add to our plates and truly don’t care that we are hurting. Sad, but true.

  10. Tracey June 22, 2023 at 9:17 pm

    Unfortunately, both for teachers and Dear Leaders toxic positivity is very true and very prevalent. Ask yourself who matters? It should always be 1. Yourself 2. Your loved ones, 3. Your students. The others? Screw’em. Close the door and reach/teach those who want and need it. With the dire shortage of teachers, we have some leverage now to say no! Will you really lose your job? The bigger Dear Leaders (politicians) don’t care if public education goes down the drain. They will continue to add to our plates and truly don’t care that we are hurting. Sad, but true.

  11. Furio Detti August 18, 2023 at 5:55 am

    The most evident case of positive toxicity in my opinion is the passive-aggressive mood of my colleagues and, most of, of the coleagues more prone to the Direction or Principal (in Italy “Dirigente scolastico”). Each time I had to say “We as teachers shall not do X because Y” – any of my “No”s were without a hint of explaination (wes we could agree or not but we can discuss) – the common automatic response is not about my reasons or any discussion “how can we manage that better” but: So you harm the students. Or the student’s right will be impaired. Putting any on the floor of If you do as you ask you do the good for pupils; otherwise no. With emotional performance too. I cannot count the times when my Principal accused me to damage the school community only If I suggest the colleagues to vote no to a certain summer activity (in Italy we can approve or diapprove in meetings part of the proposals from the Direction that are outside the contract).

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