No Teacher Should Be Positive 100% of the Time

A few months ago I read the book What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most by Todd Whitaker. It seems the book has been through multiple editions and has been pretty widely read, and I can see why: I agree with most of the messages in the book, and I appreciate the focus on simple principles and daily practices that should be of help to teachers in any school (and likely professionals in other settings, too!).

Although Whitaker’s book contains “17 things,” I would summarize his most essential messages as being that teachers should strive to be consistent, reflective, relationship-focused, empathetic, and positive. I identify with these values and I strive to emulate them myself, but I’d like to examine that last descriptor in particular: Being positive isn’t always as positive as it seems.

In general, it is incredibly important for teachers to focus on positive things: Praising students for their strengths, encouraging their growth, and looking toward our own improvement as professionals are all critical practices and attitudes for educators to have. However, there are a few ideas Whitaker espouses in his book that I believe can be characterized as toxic positivity. I think those points are worth investigating so we can watch out for them and consider their relevance to our work.

Toxic positivity seems to have gained traction in recent years as a phenomenon people are highlighting and discussing, and I’m sure glad that it has. (It was even addressed in an NEA Today article earlier this year.) I believe toxic positivity is prevelant in American culture, and in the teaching profession in particular, so I’ve started to watch out for its presence. Here’s how I would describe toxic positivity in its most extreme and dangerous form:

Rather than simply seeing the glass as half full, toxic positivity insists that the glass is 100% full 100% of the time, and anyone who says otherwise must be poisoning the water.

When it comes to What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most, it was “thing” number 9 from Whitaker’s list that invited the greatest expression of toxic positivity:

9. Great teachers consistently filter out the negatives that don’t matter and share a positive attitude.

As a single sentence, that statement may appear just fine, but problems appear in the accompanying chapter as Whitaker shares more thoughts to illustrate his principle.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario described in the chapter: Whitaker (as a teacher) has just had a meeting with an angry parent, and then as he leaves the meeting, he sees a colleague in the hallway. The colleague asks Whitaker, “How is your day going?” and Whitaker explains he now has two choices:

  1. He can complain about the “whacko parent” he just met with, or
  2. He can say “Things are great, how about with you?”

In this scenario, Whitaker creates a stark dichotomy between unnecessary complaining that will negatively impact his colleague’s day, and using a filter to maintain a positive attitude and school environment. To me, that dichotomy is completely false. I am very grateful whenever I learn reliable information about my students’ families from my colleagues, especially if that information pertains to how a parent might have had a negative meeting with a teacher. My colleagues do not call parents “whacko,” (although sometimes they might have reason to think it), and sharing information about a negative experience does not in and of itself create a negative school environment.

Whitaker’s stance reflects the often-observed cultural trait that “How are you?” is not usually meant to be a genuine question in the United States, but rather a meaningless nicety. I would argue that in order to be educators who build empathetic, positive relationships in our schools, (just as Whitaker promotes), we need to make “How are you?” meaningful. When I ask my students and colleagues how they are, I want to know their honest answers. If I use a “filter” so dense that I never talk about anything negative, I don’t think I could ever move beyond having shallow relationships with the other people in my school.

Allow me present my own scenario. In my classroom, I strive to establish strong relationships with my students based on mutual respect and honesty (expressed within reasonable bounds, of course). If I am successful in doing that, there should be days at school when I am able to do the following: My students come into the room, we start class, and at a certain point, I decide to share, “You know, everyone, I’ve been having a kind of frustrating day today, so I’m sorry if I seem a little worn down.”

That simple statement can make for a very powerful moment. I’ve done it before, and the response is touching: Because the students have reason to care about me and reason to believe me, they express their sympathy, and they will probably behave more sensitively than usual toward me for the remainder of the day. Of course, I don’t make the statement to my students because it’s some kind of classroom management tactic; I say it because I want to have the type of relationship with my students where I can share when I’m having a bad day, and they can share when they are, too. Sharing honest negative emotions in the classroom (in a reasonably limited fashion) won’t create a negative atmosphere that harms students’ education. On the contrary, it should create the type of authentic environment that will allow students to fully engage with their teacher and each other. After all, teachers are real people who often need to be humanized for their students, just as students are real people who often need to be humanized for their teachers.

In my classroom, it’s ok to be negative: It’s part of building honest and authentic relationships.

Later in the chapter, Whitaker writes about how the teachers’ lounge in any given school is known to be a perennial place for “griping.” He states:

The great teachers don’t add to the litany of complaints. Instead, they filter them out.

I don’t take umbrage to this statement because I’m the kind of teacher who’s always “griping”: I believe I keep my negative comments to colleagues quite restrained. I have colleagues who make more complaints than I do, (complaints that sometimes might even turn into a “litany”), but I generally appreciate hearing their perspectives, as they often bring up legitimate issues that I hadn’t considered before. In fact, I would conclude that many great teachers know so much about education and care so much about their students that they must have many complaints: With every problem they see and want to fix, frustration has to build, and sharing that frustration with colleagues who could understand and help is completely understandable.

Even if there are complainers in the staff room who are not especially perceptive teachers enumerating legitimate problems in the education system, there is still a value in “griping” and in listening to that griping. Real human beings need an outlet for their frustrations, and supporting your colleagues as a genuine friend and coworker means listening to real problems. I may not complain very frequently myself, but I can tell it’s helpful to my colleagues when I lend a sympathetic ear. And, whenever I do have complaints bottled up inside me, it’s a relief to know I can depend on people who will listen.

Later in his section about the teachers’ lounge, Whitaker adds:

The faculty workroom should be a place where professionals support each other. Sure, teachers are overworked and underpaid—but do we really want to focus on those aspects of our profession during our free minutes?

To the first statement, I would say—as I explained above—that it is entirely appropriate for professionals to support each other by listening to each other’s full range of emotions, including complaints. And to Whitaker’s question, I would say—Yes, sometimes we might want to focus on those things, and that should be ok!

When Whitaker concedes that teachers are overworked and underpaid, but in the same sentence implies teachers shouldn’t discuss that with each other, his attitude has more than a whiff of anti-union, anti-worker posturing. If teachers don’t actively discuss problems with our pay and working conditions, we’ll never be able to work to improve our pay and working conditions! The same is true for any problems that affect or involve our students: If a teaching staff is so focused on avoiding any semblance of “griping” and filters out negatives to maintain an ever-positive school environment, that staff may well ignore very real problems harming students, allowing them to fester. Personally, I would rather have “complainers” around who can highlight such problems right away. Then the rest of the staff can organize and act faster to address them.

In spite of the great messages shared throughout the majority of Todd Whitaker’s book, it is these passages and a few others that lead me to conclude that some aspects of What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most can be characterized as toxic positivity.

To recap, toxic positivity doesn’t just mean that a person is unrealistically positive, or positive all the time. (That’s a Pollyanna.) Instead, toxic positivity refers to the attitude some people take that they and everyone around them should stay perpetually positive, even when there are real problems to be addressed. Toxic positivity papers over those problems, insisting that a teacher should say “Things are great, how about with you?” even when they just had a parent meeting that was not great at all.

I truly believe I have an optimistic outlook on my life, my career, my school, and my community. That’s what makes it even more infuriating when people perceive that I’m a “complainer” or a troublemaker because I take the time to point out problems in my school, district, or community that I think should be addressed. Toxic positivity insists on ignoring, hiding, or denying anything negative. Not only is toxic positivity not realistic, but ultimately it isn’t positive. The most positive educational environments are those where we can openly discuss negative issues and work conscientiously to improve our schools, our teaching, and our students’ lives.

Please leave a comment below with your thoughts—positive or negative!




Teacher who writes about history, language, travel, politics, and education. Kichx̱áanx’ yéi x̱at yatee. (I live in Ketchikan, Alaska.) Twitter: @peterstanton

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Peter Stanton

Peter Stanton

Teacher who writes about history, language, travel, politics, and education. Kichx̱áanx’ yéi x̱at yatee. (I live in Ketchikan, Alaska.) Twitter: @peterstanton

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