It’s in vogue right now to call out toxic positivity. My intention is for you to see exactly what it is and how it works.

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

Then Administrator 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. 

"A Great Teacher is Like a Candle"

Next, a PowerPoint slide 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, and 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. 

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  • First, a Human Candle is a commodity that is used and 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, it is 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 not to 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. Administrators across the country expect this destructive level of emotional, physical, and intellectual sacrifice. But why? Because it’s what makes the system work.

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If you can emotionally abuse, gaslight, and manipulate people into working countless hours and sacrificing their personal lives but, most importantly, internalize 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.

Setting Emotional Boundaries

In the meantime, teachers must set emotional boundaries. 

“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.” 

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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 Administrator 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, and 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 Administrator’s toxic desire to use you to prop up a broken system until the sheer weight of the task destroys you.

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.
  • 160 Farms says:

    Well said. This is a huge problem in education that needs to be stated.

  • Lana Penley says:

    This article had some great points. I cannot believe this phrase was on a slide, “A great teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.”

    Our goal is to be the best version of ourselves in this world, not to be consumed so others can find their way. Thank you for writing this ❤️

  • Donna Scro says:

    So much has happened to public education these past few years; gun violence, Covid, ‘banned books’, teacher shortages, the list goes on. We always say, this event will force the schools into positive change. But it doesn’t. Impossible to believe but it doesn’t.

  • Christine Poulos Maxant says:

    As a retired teacher, I can clearly remember the many times my colleagues and I did not set emotional boundaries because we feared for our jobs. Yes, we used our personal money to by school supplies. Yes, we stayed late to meet with a parent knowing there will never overtime pay for us. And yes, we spent our evenings and weekends grading papers instead of having fun with our families. Was it all worth the effort? You be the judge.

  • Marion Gaetano says:

    This is an incredibly well written article and could effect change should it be read and acted upon by every teach in North America!

  • Great points. 1 quibble. In texas, yes we have contracts that bind us. But they do not bind the school. We are “at will” employees who can be fired “without cause” at any time. We are also barred by state law from forming a union (we have “associations” that are barred from collective bargaining and we can’t strike. That’s Texas

  • Rich Schiller says:

    A great scene from an old movie. I believe it was called “Network” had the star yelling out the window with some degree of profanity and the words “and I am not going to take it anymore!” I once had a superintendent in front of 500 teachers at the first day of school meetings say ” The kids in your classroom can be involved for hours at a rock concert, you have them for just 40 minutes! Get them involved!” Wish the 500 would have stood and yelled “We are not going to take this anymore!” I have experienced excellent educational leaders in many institutions but some others, especially those far removed from the actual classrooms, need to be stood up to and told “NO”.

  • Yes, this kind of life style would seem meaningless. Unless the teacher is fully devoted, attached to the greater values than the administrators; in which case the teacher will not care burning up.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
    Toxic Positivity: I Won’t Be A Human Candle was authored by:
    Jane Morris

    Jane Morris is the bestselling author of several books about her teaching career, including Teacher Misery, More Teacher Misery, and What It's Really Like. She lives in the DC metro area with her husband, two young daughters, and a scrappy puppy named Clover Bean McCloverson.

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