Strategies for Keeping Toxic Positivity Out of School Culture

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling I see all these pictures and videos of educators working tirelessly to create a positive school culture. Leaders working so hard to make school happy, joyous, and positive. We can all agree that optimism and positive thinking definitely have their place when it comes time to work through challenging situations. But a problem arises when positivity is taken to such an extreme that it becomes toxic.

If we ever find ourselves rejecting very real human emotions in favor of false optimism, then we need to consider whether we may be guilty of conveying or promoting toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity is inherently dishonest since it involves adopting a belief system that avoids dealing with the reality of a challenging situation or set of circumstances. It's a mindset that clings to the belief that no matter how difficult a situation is, everyone effected should simply maintain a positive outlook.

If You are Motivated By Spreading "FOMO" on Social Media, Then You Might Be Promoting Toxic Positivity

Kids with Polaroids around Christmas timeBetween Facebook and Twitter, I follow about 2000 educators. School leaders are posting now more than ever before about the great things going on in their schools. They are creating learning experiences for their students that are engaging, memorable, and most certainly fun. And they are documenting all of it for the world to see.

From a ten-minute scroll today on the Facebook page, Principals' Principles Leadership Group (57.1K followers), I see leaders doing all kinds of amazing work to create and foster a positive environment in their schools:

  • Positive Office Referrals
  • Painting Rooms To "Revitalize and Make Friendly"
  • 12 Days of Christmas Countdowns
  • Reindeer Days
  • Faculty Scavenger Hunts
  • PBIS Rewards Stores
  • Food Carts
  • Spinning Wheel of Fun
  • Ice Breaker Activities
  • Winter Wonderland Spirit Days
  • Individual Gifts
  • Staff Reindeer Games
  • Door Decorating
  • Ugliest Sweater Contests
  • Punch Cup Trees for Prizes
  • School Family Christmas Photos

Hear me out. These examples are definitely not, by themselves, indicative of toxic positivity, but if anyone gets a kick out of giving other people that dreaded feeling of FOMO, then that could be an indicator.

People viewing these posts often feel like these schools are remarkable and they want that experience in their schools. If you compare your own school's social media accounts with some of these schools, you can definitely have a FOMO moment.

This emotion can make you question your effectiveness as an educator. You may have several questions run through your mind.

  • Why can't we do more of that?
  • How can we have the same experience?
  • How can we document the same thing to garner the same feelings or reaction in our school?
  • What are we doing?
  • What can we do?

In many schools, educators are implementing a plethora of "culture creating" activities for students and staff. Good educators understand there should be a good balance between culture and content. The best educators create learning experiences that connect and intertwine culture-creating activities with highly engaging content and curriculum. The goal of course is to have high achievement as well as a highly positive culture.

STRATEGY #1: Ground Yourself in Compassionate Reality

Teacher embracing sad girl outside schoolPart of toxic positivity is the ability for a school leader to continue conducting school wide events to increase and almost force happiness on the staff. These leaders push everyone to be happy no matter what the current reality truly is. Such a push actually has the opposite effect on staff members. Sarcasm and passive aggressive behavior can develop when a leader enacts yet another culture creating activity.

For example, a leader may implement the idea of 12 Days Before Christmas Celebration before winter. They may also include dress up days for students and staff, music playing in the hallways before, during, and after school, food every day, and more. This all sounds wonderful and a great gesture by the school leadership, but what they are missing is the current state of the school or community.

Many leaders dismiss reality. Staff members feel guilty when they have feelings of sadness or madness, almost to the point of not being allowed to feel anything but happiness. We know the holidays for some kids and families are a difficult time. Dismissing, ignoring, placating, or hiding these feelings can become toxic. These emotions will come out at some point and it could be exhibited directly or indirectly at other staff, students, or community members.

Yes, perception is reality, except when the reality isn't being addressed. Ignoring the current reality does create a positively toxic environment.

The ultimate solution to this problem is understanding this reality and being empathetic. Teaching empathy should be a priority within our communities, and to be taught at both school and home. I believe understanding empathy is vital to understanding the people around us.

Leaders can empathize with their colleagues, especially in understanding their current reality. I would argue there is one more step to empathy…what do we do with this feeling of empathy?

In Kristen Saouers and Pete Hall's book, Fostering Resilient Learners (2016), they describe a continuum that I believe we as educational leaders must understand and implement:


Sympathy => Empathy => Compassion


When we feel sympathy for someone else's situation, we feel sorry for them. When we empathize with someone else's situation, we understand them and can put ourselves metaphorically in their situation. When we understand compassion, we are taking both the sympathy and empathy for someone's situation, and acting on it with compassion. Again, compassion is the physical act of showing empathy.

We can teach our students compassion. As leaders, we can even teach the adults in our school the power of compassion.

What can we do with words and actions to combat this toxic positivity perception in our schools? Here are three ideas you can implement:

  1. When we want to celebrate, we can do so by not going over the top with a multitude of school wide events that only promote positivity.
  2. Do a couple things, but make sure to acknowledge the current reality that the holidays are stressful and anxiety riddled for many families, including school personnel.
  3. Include lessons on compassion and honor people's time. As education leaders, we must understand that many of these events require additional time. Additional time can exacerbate this stress and anxiety.

STRATEGY #2: Understand All Components of School Culture

Teachers working together in school library Dr. Bill Dagget states the top 1% of the top 1% of all effective schools in the United States all have one thing in common, a focus on positive school culture. In effective schools, educators can be seen working on school culture every day. Many of us in education can specifically state what we do every day to increase our school's culture. Some of the most common responses you will hear from educators when they describe a strong culture might include:

  • There are visible and strong relationships with students, staff, and community
  • Positive behavior intervention supports are implemented (PBIS)
  • A focus on everyone contributing to school culture
  • The words and actions of everyone in the school illustrate empathy

Toxic positivity can manifest when school culture isn't examined. There is one major characteristic I feel needs to be emphasized and examined (bolded and italicized above). In order to do school culture correctly, we need high expectations for not only students, but the adults in the school.

"Strong school culture includes high expectations for adults, too!"

Like students, educators like boundaries, expectations, and rules. The problem is when they are not enforced, taught, and communicated consistently. In fact, educators get upset when their colleagues are not held to high expectations. Think about the teacher next door that seems to be teaching fluff, or having fun all the time without the high academic expectations you have in your classroom.

From personal experience I have been upset with my administrators for not holding one of my colleagues accountable. When I was a new teacher making just $19,100 in my first year, I remember one of my colleagues would walk their class over to the local Dairy Queen each Friday for a snack. Students got to choose whatever they wanted to from the menu. Back in my classroom, we continued learning while we watched the other class leave every Friday afternoon.

I wondered, where the heck was the administrator? Does the administrator approve of these field trips? How can a teacher leave for the afternoon every Friday with their students? Do parents approve of their student missing this much instruction? How can public dollars be spent on field trips that are not academically driven…and going to Dairy Queen?

I knew my students were getting more than two hours of instruction every week and our academic scores were higher! This of course was a hard sell to my students.

In much the same manner, many education leaders are missing the "culture boat." They create these elaborate and amazing positive culture events for their schools without holding students and the adults accountable to the main thing…educating our students.

I love the mantra, "Keep the main thing, the main thing." I believe we can create a positive school culture while learning being the centerpiece of that culture.

"Keep the main thing, the main thing."

It doesn't mean we can't stop instruction routinely, have fun, and be able to enjoy our school experience even more. The problem persists when we don't keep learning and high expectations the focus of our school day.

Two woman teachers arguing outside schoolIn order to do this, we must model this as educational leaders. We must hold not only students accountable, but the adults in the learning environment accountable as well.

Unfortunately, many educational leaders only want to do the fun stuff. It is much easier to organize school wide positive behavior supports and it obviously is much more enjoyable. There may be some short term positive results with this strategy, but it is not long lasting.

To truly have a strong positive culture that withstands toxic positivity, we also must have the hard conversations with our students and adults. We must lean into these difficult situations. Brene Brown states,

"We must lean into the discomfort of the work."

I believe this discomfort comes from maintaining high expectations. Toxicity creeps in from the simplest request, and in the grand scheme of educating students, this simple request may seem minuscule. Without addressing this simple request and the subsequent adult behaviors, culture breaks down. Teachers start thinking, why doesn't the principal (or educational leader) address this? The fact that they are not addressing it, but putting all their time into school wide culture building activities, illustrates low accountability.

These conversations can look as simple as the teacher that comes to school after the contractually required 8:00 AM. The educational leader may be afraid to have the conversation with the teacher, or they don't worry about the "small stuff." To further complicate this small issue, the leader may have already had a conversation with a teacher. The leader knows that the teacher works longer than the required contracted time, so avoiding the problem may be the leader's path of least resistance. Without the educational leader setting a boundary or expectation, an observer may find that teachers can show up at any time without repercussion or consequence.

There are many reasons for teachers to be there at the required 8:00 AM. The education leader only gets 10-20 minutes before students come in order to talk face to face with them. A parent may come to school to talk with the teacher and they find the teacher is not there. We advertise that teachers work from 8:00 AM - 4:00 PM, but we don't know where they are at the time when arriving with a parent in their classroom. School culture can also be affected when teachers who follow the rules see other teachers brazenly show up whenever they want and have no consequences. Instead, leaders must lean in!

As school leader you can set the expectation school wide at the beginning of the year with the following compassionate words,

"My expectation is that you are here from 8:00 AM - 4:00 PM. We do this because it is in our contractual obligations. We do this because we advertise to our community, especially parents. It is embarrassing when I walk down to your classroom with a parent and you are not here yet and I don't know where you are. In addition, I only get a short amount of time to meet with you before and after school. Now, I know how busy you are, and I know that life happens. The expectation is if you are going to be late, text me and let me know. I am not going to be mad or upset, I just want to know where you are so I can plan. In addition, if we need coverage for you, a text or phone call to me will suffice. Likewise, if I am late for a meeting with you, I will make sure I text or call you. By honoring your time, and you honoring my time, we will continue to build respect for each other. When this respect continues to build, a school culture based on trusting relationships continues to grow. If lateness does become a pattern, we will then problem solve and come up with a solution together."

Though this may seem trivial, without setting these boundaries, explaining the expectations, continuing to communicate, and working on high expectations, toxic positivity will destroy your efforts when you do the fun school wide activities.

As educational leaders there are only a couple things we can actually give teachers: salary, resources, time and compassion!

Jon Konen