Here and overseas, more than ever before, teachers’ workplaces are complex and demanding. With unmanageable workloads and high levels of stress and anxiety, attrition rates have skyrocketed. To make matters worse, teachers are increasingly expected to manage their own wellbeing.

Many schools, in response to wellbeing issues, have embraced positive psychology and its promotion of positive emotions and traits.

However, this has in turn produced the notion of ‘toxic positivity’, described as ‘happiness at all costs’ which occurs in organisations when there’s a perception that expressing or bringing feelings other than happiness to work is inappropriate.

Wellbeing is not just an individual responsibility; it's a systemic issue that requires collective action and acknowledgment of the real challenges teachers face.

For many teachers, the online platform Reddit provides a welcome environment in which to air their opinions and grievances related to their survival in the modern school and classroom.

Reddit has around 52 million daily active registered users globally and more than 100,000 active topical communities, called subreddits.

The site functions through registered members over 13 years of age who typically use a pseudonym to protect privacy, with 58 per cent of users aged between 18-34 and 57 per cent identifying as male.

Keen to hear from those at the coalface, West Australian researcher Dr Saul Karnovsky ventured onto the platform for some first-hand views, particularly on teacher wellbeing.

The idea for his research emerged from an article for The Conversation back in February 2022, written by Karnovsky and fellow researcher, Associate Professor Brad Gobby, who’s now at Edith Cowan University, on toxic positivity in schools.

The article was extremely well received, enjoyed tens of thousands of reads online, and was eventually shared on Reddit by several teachers who started talking about this culture of toxic positivity and the wellbeing programs in their own schools, and how they really felt about it.

“So we followed this forum and started to discover just how powerful Reddit can be in allowing a space for teachers because they’re anonymous,” Karnovsky explains.

“...rather than feeling that if they voice some of these issues and concerns in their school, they might receive some kind of professional harm or be silenced in some way or be seen as not coping in their school, they can jump online and tell it like it really is, and really speak to the lived reality of the emotional demands of the work that they’re doing.”

Across two subreddits the post accumulated 242 comments, with many of these being interactions between posters.

The researchers discovered educators sharing numerous stories of not-fit-for-purpose solutions that are being rolled out, particularly in government schools across the country.

Within these schools, reports of a plethora of corporate wellbeing programs and wellness gurus emerged, plus a range of different professional development sessions that urge teachers to manage their own stress through thinking positively, breathing mindfully and so on.

“So really starting to consider what are their personal resources that they need to improve, rather than, which is what the teachers were saying, that ‘the problem isn’t my personal wellbeing, it’s this unmanageable workload that is just breaking me’,” Karnovsky says.

“The absence of voices from school leaders and policymakers on Reddit forums can create a divide between teachers and leaders,” Dr Saul Karnovsky says.

In The Conversation piece, Karnovsky and Gobby argued that ‘when relentless positivity takes hold in schools to deny negative experiences or stressors, there can be unethical and dangerous consequences for teachers, including demoralisation and emotional fatigue, which contribute to teachers leaving the profession’.

The new research has more than confirmed their theory, and through their analysis the researchers have coined the phrase ‘cruel wellbeing’ to describe programs that overlooked the difficult work conditions faced by teachers and asked them to be solely responsible for their wellbeing through positive thinking strategies.

“[The research] really showed that teachers are finding that these wellbeing programs and wellbeing committees, are exacerbating the stress and emotional fatigue that they’re feeling around their work,” Karnovsky says.

“They just feel that this is not located in the right space. The space is not around, ‘tell me how to do yoga and give me opportunities to think about my diet and exercise and breathing’, rather, our teacher leaders and certainly principals, seem to be ticking boxes for their own ends, but it really doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.”

The researcher says most of the nation’s teachers are expessing that they intend to, or have considered, leaving the profession within the last few years. In 2023, for example, a union survey in WA found 86 per cent of teachers were leaving or at least were thinking about it.

“And why? It’s workload – and the workload is affecting their health and wellbeing,” Karnovsky says.

“Only something like 25 per cent of those respondents said it had anything to do with salary or pay.

“This is not about paying teachers more money, which is often the go-to, it’s that the real nub of the issue for teachers is these unrealistic and unmanageable workloads, and the administration burdens that have been put upon teachers.

Karnovsky says there are around 200-300 people on the Australian Teachers Reddit forum, “so, quite a substantial community you can access on a daily basis, after school”.

Between 2014 and 2018 in Western Australia, one study revealed there had been a 90 per cent increase in administration tasks put upon teachers.

“I mean, that is eye watering!” Karnovsky laments.

“It is really just mind boggling as well, that teachers are expected to take on all of these extra tasks, when we know that as well in the classroom, there is now an increasing demand for teachers to account for an array of diversity that they’re experiencing, and behavioural issues, kids coming in not being able to read and write, and speaking different languages, and coming with all sorts of diagnoses and issues that the teachers need to spend time accounting for.

“And that’s where their energy should be spent, not in trying to complete all of these tasks that often are just compliance driven – (it's) our obsession with data and performance, and teachers are just saying, ‘I can’t cope. It’s just not worth it for all this extra load that you’re putting on me’."

Karnovsky’s research clearly indicates that school leaders and policymakers would benefit a great deal from engaging with educators on Reddit, where truths can be spoken, and that an absence of their voices on Reddit forums is helping to create a divide between teachers and leaders.

“I think it’s always been there [the divide] – and what we’re finding now, it’s different to how it was maybe 20 years ago, when principals were still engaged in the classroom, there were teacher leaders, and they were seen as people who had come from the classroom.

“But now occupying these positions of leadership, they’re now administrators and business managers in the school, rather than being in touch with what teachers are going through every day."

Policies, Karnovsky explains, get pushed upon leaders, and then leaders push those policies onto teachers.

“So I think, certainly principals could get online and have a look at what teachers are saying on Reddit, to really get a sense of how they’re viewed.

“They really need to perhaps be questioning some of their methods in the way that they communicate with their staff, in the way that they are styling themselves as the sort of CEOs of schools that teachers are really quite cynical (of), and really see that as something that is exacerbating the issue of leaders and policymakers on one side of the fence and [teachers] on the other.”

School leaders obviously experience similar kinds of workplace issues, such as the intensification of work and poor work-life balance, stress, poor mental health, often low quality of life because of long work hours, a lack of time to focus on teaching and learning, and often being subjected to offensive behaviour, threats of violence or exposed to physical violence.

“We know that principals' workload is generally unmanageable,” Karnovsky agrees.

“They’re working incredibly long hours, they are often the victims of parent abuse.”

A 2023 look at school leadership and violence, intimidation and abuse found that school leaders here in Australia are 11 times more likely to be intimidated by or the victim of school-based violence than the average person.

“That’s staggering, so our school leaders are really there on the frontlines, too, with a different kind of stress and challenge,” Karnovsky says.

“And no wonder as well we’re seeing in our leadership a sort of churn, a lot of leaders are burning out quickly as well.

“So teachers and leaders need to come together and start to share these burdens and start to find common ground. And I think in that way, they can start to create more local solutions to these issues.”

WA researcher Dr Saul Karnovsky says the nation’s school leaders are on the frontlines, too, facing a different kind of stress and challenge.

Karnovsky’s research team found that while the tone of the various discussions on Reddit varied, with everything from abundant humour to levels of anger and frustration, through it all was a dominant feeling of collegiality and encouragement – a community of coping, so to speak.

“There’s a healthy dose of what you might call dark even gallows humour going on,” he says.

“It’s very cynical. There’s a lot of sarcasm – so using very Australian means to defuse some of these really quite potent, and sometimes very intimate emotions.

“There’s teachers who disclose that they’ve been suicidal, for example, so there’s some quite dark and troubling stuff on there, yet you also see humour and solidarity, unlike some of our other social media channels that can have people just shouting at each other…”

For example, Karnovsky says, when a teacher posts something that says, ‘hey, I’m really struggling, is it just me?’, the response is a litany of comments from various other posters saying, ‘hey, it’s OK, I’ve been there too, these are some of the things that I found helpful'.

Or, ‘it’s all right, if you need to take a break, take a leave of absence’, or ‘hey, if you’ve had enough, maybe it’s time for a job change’, too.

“So there’s not like, ‘oh, just stick it out. It’ll be OK’,” he says.

“I find when a graduate or somebody quite new in their career posts that ‘look, I’m not coping’, you see our experienced teachers coming through with comments and saying, ‘look, these are the things that helped me, it’s OK to say no to all these extra things, if your principal’s not supportive, maybe look for a different school’.

“So, there is a lot of heartwarming stuff on there as well, it’s not all doom and gloom and darkness. It’s also that sense that teachers are finding a space that they may not be able to access in their local lives.

“I do think there’s immense power on Reddit in particular, because of the anonymity, because of the immediacy of these forums, and the longer form discussions that can happen that maybe are much more difficult on places like Facebook, and certainly X.”

Karnovsky says for the foreseeable future, managing workloads needs to be at the top of any school’s priority list.

A good start, he says, would be the hiring of more paraprofessionals.

“So putting some funds into hiring administration staff to take care of the data entry, the reporting, the daily reporting on the various systems that teachers have to use now, maybe communicating with parents even, and getting some of that work done for the teacher.

“…(and) creating different kinds of positions in schools that we haven’t had before, but I feel are really necessary, right at this juncture, to give teachers some breathing room in their workload, so they can focus on the good stuff: the work with students, building relationships, differentiating their learning to account for those needs that young people have, focusing on student mental health, which we know is such a prevalent issue now.

“It’s this sort of rethinking of the architecture of the school in terms of who’s doing what, and flipping that a little bit into a new kind of school environment where there’s a lot more support staff, because we’ve had EAS and so forth in classroom, but we need almost like teaching support staff, more of those in schools, to give teachers that sense that 'it’s not all on me to get all these array of tasks done because I can’t manage it'.”

The full research paper, How teacher wellbeing can be cruel: Refusing discourses of wellbeing in an online Reddit forum can be read here.