The Problem With False Positivity
"Don't point out the problems. People will get the wrong idea."
"Don't say that in public; people will keep believing schools are bad."
"You shouldn't point out these issues. Point out the positives instead."
These are all things I have heard or seen online during my teaching career. When teachers would share their struggles or critiques in meetings or online, someone would pop up, telling them they shouldn't say bad things about the systems in which we work, because it will "make us look bad."
And, to an extent, I can understand that. In a profession that struggles to be seen as professional, I get why folks feel wary of somehow tarnishing the name of teachers and schools. We want respect for the work we do, which is more than fair.
Still, there's a difference between creating toxic teaching environments and pointing out actual, potentially systemic issues happening at our schools. There's a line between unnecessary and hurtful venting and frustration, and noting actual structural issues of education.
One person shared, "... when I was working for the district office, I discovered some inequities with regard to students' placement in accelerated math. I was asked to take it out of the report I was working on. ... Even districts that are, on the surface, committed to equity are not excited to have their dirty laundry aired."
Another noted that, when pointing out inequities in funding, they were told they were "keeping teachers out of the profession."
And, while I can empathize to some degree, I also can't help but feel that if we don't air out the dirty laundry, we won't see what we have to clean up. If we create a world where teachers (particularly new teachers) are too scared to share their voice for fear of "making us look bad," we will continue to spiral around the same problems without creating real solutions. We also risk creating a culture of fear and silence in our schools, enabling problems to become further exacerbated by our silence.
This tension can particularly exist when we call out issues of race or inclusion within our school system. We are in an age where power structures and problematic policies are receiving more attention—rightfully so. Because of this, though, it appears some of us are so scared of getting called out that we attempt to cover up the issue.
But we have to be braver than that.
This week, I showed my students Clint Smith III's "The Danger of Silence":
At one point, Smith says:
Silence is the residue of fear. It is feeling your flaws gut-wrench guillotine your tongue. It is the air retreating from your chest because it doesn't feel safe in your lungs. Silence is Rwandan genocide. Silence is Katrina. It is what you hear when there aren't enough body bags left. It is the sound after the noose is already tied. It is charring. It is chains. It is privilege. It is pain. There is no time to pick your battles when your battles have already picked you.
I will not let silence wrap itself around my indecision.
We cannot allow ourselves to be silent for fear that we will somehow create more judgment around our work. If anything, to move forward without calling out actual issues would be irresponsible to our profession and our communities. To accept the status quo is to be complicit in the conditions many teachers and students are in as "acceptable" when, frankly, they are not.
We have to be willing to hear and accept worthwhile criticism from the folks who are serving our students—be they teachers, coaches, community members, or parents. Yes, we can ask for healthy criticism and make sure we're not being subjected to needless berating. Of course, we should share and celebrate the positive things people are doing in their classrooms and with their students (particularly the students). We can do all these things and also call out problems that exist in hopes that they get solved.
If anything, by owning our struggles, we paint a more beautiful and nuanced picture of the students and teachers that thrive even in unfair environments—not to make martyrs of them or somehow prove those issues don't exist, but as a way to ask ourselves just what is possible if we were to give equal access to all our students and communities—because that's what they ultimately deserve.
Our students and communities deserve teachers who are compensated like professionals for their work. They deserve teachers who have equitable access to essential and innovative professional development. They deserve an education that doesn't push oppressive mindsets and beliefs about their cultures on to them. They deserve equitable access to resources.
Until they get those things, not as a privilege but as a matter of practice, we should not shy away from fighting for them. They won't be empowered and emboldened by a falsely happy face insisting everything is fine. We can give them the courage to advocate, dream, and demand what they deserve.