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Detoxifying Teaching: How to Stay Positive       


When I was a brand-new teacher, a mentor gave me some valuable advice: “Stay out of the teacher’s lounge. It’s a breeding ground for negativity.” Boy, was that ever useful information. No matter what school I happened to be working in, I always heeded her warning to steer clear of the drama while popping into a shared staff space to microwave some popcorn or grab my lunch box. Still, even with our best intentions, it can be difficult to avoid school politics and keep our professional lives non-toxic. How can we check ourselves, stay away from toxic pockets and make sure we stay focused on the work we do? Here are some ideas that might come in handy.

Keep it Professional           

Having friends at work can certainly be extremely beneficial for our mental health. However, keeping our personal conversations limited to our own lives rather than engaging in gossip about our colleagues is extremely important. For one thing, the whatever we say usually winds up getting back to whoever we’re talking about, which is hurtful and cannot be undone. Rumormongering also leads to unnecessary drama, not to mention bad vibes. If we want to work in a pleasant atmosphere, we need to be part of the solution. That means keeping a lot of our thoughts to ourselves (yes, even the witty ones), and forging connections with others that are based on healthy common interests or pursuits, like a love of knitting or a TV show obsession.

Try Not to Judge           

We all need some work in this area; I know I do. I sometimes joke that judging is my favorite hobby, but to be real for a moment, we need to try and rein this part of ourselves in when we are at work. It can be awfully easy to sit back, watch someone else do a job and find plenty to criticize. Instead, let’s challenge ourselves to see the good in what others do. After all, we come into schools with different strengths, and that gives us the capacity to learn so much from one another. Why should we be put off by someone who doesn’t see things the way we do? When we think about how a wide range of talents and viewpoints gives us opportunities to grow and embrace our differences, we become part of a more functional teaching environment.

Step Outside           

Sometimes, just one breath of fresh air can help us feel better. Life exists outside of school walls, but that can be incredibly easy to forget when we’re entrenched in our teaching world. Even in bad weather, taking a moment to step outside and get some perspective decreases the weight of the world that sits on our shoulders. In turn, we might be less likely to either engage in or to entertain toxic behavior. An active reset moment that we plan into our day reminds us that all those little petty details that really bug us don’t matter much, if at all. Then, we have the mental strength to focus on what we came to work to do: teach.

Be Compassionate           

Times have been rough, and we are in the middle of trying to recover. As a society, we don’t spend much time talking about compassion, which is a real shame. If we see someone melting down or behaving badly, meeting their inappropriate display with a gentler reaction can make all the difference. Suppose we see two colleagues fighting. While that is certainly not all right, we can respond productively instead of with toxicity. Rather than sharing what we saw with others for no purpose other than to spread the word, we can think about whether these teachers are all right, whether a supervisor should be informed, and what would best serve the situation to the benefit of all. That way, instead of being busybodies, we can actually try to help from a genuine place of caring.

Pick Your Battles           

Doctors may verbally swear to do no harm, but the same oath is implicit in the work teachers do each day. Every now and then, we do need to speak up. In our line of work, that necessity is usually dictated by a student in need. If we see an adult treating a child badly, we need to protect the child. If we witness behavior that needs to be reported because it is not okay (bullying, for example), then of course we must step in somehow. But how we choose to act is just as important as why we decide to. We do not need to get involved in everything. In fact, we should try to stay out of the fray as much as possible. That way, we will not get immersed in a dysfunctional norm.           

All places of work can become toxic, and schools are no exception. In fact, it is probably more likely to encounter negativity in a place where feelings tend to run high and there is a lot of urgency or stress. For that reason, giving ourselves some important boundaries helps to keep things appropriately drama-free so that we can focus on doing our jobs. True, staying out of things can be easier said than done, but it is possible to disengage from anything unhealthy and remain focused on why we’re in the building: to help kids.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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