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Do you encourage #ToxicPositivity as a school leader?

We must actively dissuade school leaders from obsessing over positivity. It is toxic!

School closure due to Covid 19 brought about unprecedented disruptions in the lives of children and teachers, affecting their socio-emotional development and mental well-being. Now, the educational institutions are reopening against the backdrop of numerous concerns of teachers, students, and their parents.

As people start returning to work as we relax pandemic restrictions, school leaders may think that the best way to engage their staff and maintain morale is to be buoyant. It is fine till this approach does not invalidate their awful personal experiences in these testing times and how they are feeling right now. What happens when a school leader's obsession with positivity crosses the limit? Toxic positivity demonstrated by school leaders forces the staff to feel that their opinions are misplaced if they are not expressively positive. Let’s explore what happens when the positivity of bosses goes overboard and how we can best respond to those who refuse to acknowledge their difficult times and prevailing related problems.

How you respond matters!

School leaders obsessed with positivity create cultural unpredictability in schools where the staff feels they can not say what they think unless they add a positive twist to it. As a result, they do not talk about the challenges they face. Watch out if this is the story of your school!

A school leader's job is to understand the challenges that their team members are experiencing, identify their struggles and create mechanisms to support them to deal with these. The solution lies in having open and honest conversations about these negative issues to enable leaders to plan the best support to offer.

The popular belief that if we were to delve into some of these negative thoughts and feelings, it could open Pandora’s box, everything could fall apart, and everyone could get depressed in the process is not accurate. The more we hold this belief and try to avoid any such conversations, the more likely we are to make matters worse. School leaders need to be mindful of the effect of the words they use, to counter the toxicity of positivity -

Instead of saying, “Just stay positive!” try saying, “That must be hard.”

Instead of saying, “Everything happens for a reason." try saying, “I am sorry you are going through this.”

Instead of saying, “Things will work out, look the brighter side!” try saying, “This must be hurting! What can I do to support you?"

Conversation is the key!

When it comes to positivity, we all overdo it sometimes. We usually tend to avoid uncomfortable emotions and try to get away from them. So is the case with school leaders. However, this does not seem to be an effective coping strategy as it tends to hide negativity in plain sight and can be counterproductive. It leaves us unprepared for hard times and is a marker of poor mental health. Instead, school leaders need to help people develop the skills to face these awkward feelings and uncomfortable experiences. To counter the fear of a ‘Pandora’s box’ effect, leaders must engage staff members in constructive conversations, learn from their adverse experiences, understand them, and use their wisdom to make good decisions to help them move forward.

Voice your perspective!

What do we do if we work with a toxic positive leader, colleague, or friend who doesn’t want to discuss any negative or challenging situations and expects only positive vibes? We need to voice our perspective diplomatically. Just saying, “Well, I’m glad that’s how you’re feeling, but I’ve found it quite difficult.” might help. Opening up those conversations and letting them know that “It not the case for me.” can give the desired hint to the bosses. However, it can be difficult if the leader says, “Well, I want you to bring your best self to work and keep your happy face on - that’s what we expect around here.” Such responses probably suggest an urgent need for leadership training.

It is okay not to be okay!

Toxic positivity is about the extent to which our pursuit of happiness or our focus on positive thinking changes and how we respond to uncomfortable events. When the pressure to remain positive is very high, every time we are unhappy or fail to achieve our goals, we feel we are somehow letting ourselves down. If this is the case, we should understand that there’s a problem with our positivity.

Feeling unhappy is a perfectly reasonable response to some situations. A recent example is the Covid 19 crisis and the constant change and uncertainty it caused. Our inability to respond to these challenging times can lead to problems. When we try to cling to the notion that we need to be happy all the time, we struggle hard to stay positive and are ashamed to feel anything.

An indirect pathway to happiness and #hope!

The leaders can always train their team members to prioritize in their lives. We need to think of doing things that may not immediately bring happiness but eventually will. That more indirect route tends to be quite effective because it’s not about frequently assessing, “Am I happy now?” and “Is this bringing me happiness?”. It’s more about “Is this a meaningful and purposeful thing to do to gain happiness in the days to come?”

In the end, I would say, “Positivity is a choice.” We can choose to have a positive perspective than a negative one. In every situation, we decide how we view the challenge in front of us. Our school leaders ought to understand this. Sant Kabir gives such a meaningful definition of an educational leader who, he says, is the one who drags us out of darkness to light.

About the Author

Anju Gupta

Anju Gupta is an educator, a leader mentor and a parent coach. Actively involving over two decades and a half in the schooling space in India, she headed Junior Section, Ahlcon International School, Delhi. As a leader mentor, she supports school leaders to learn the nuances of effectively managing a 21st century school. As a parent coach, she is working on creating a support network for parents in her community. You can connect to Anju on Twitter, @gupta_anju9


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