Oct 29, 2022

Working with Negative Coworkers

In this episode, I'm going to answer another Ask BIT question, and this question is something that I have heard from so many different spaces in my world lately! The question is: 

“How can I stay positive when my coworkers are burned-out and/or extremely negative?”

The negativity and how to protect ourselves from it have been on a lot of teachers’ minds lately - I even had two conversations about it right before recording this episode!

In my answer, I’ll share with you several things to consider that I know you're going to find applicable to your situation because combating negativity isn’t something that you just do while you’re at school, it can come up in any situation.  Maybe it is a conversation at school, or with your family, or parents, siblings, or friends…no matter where you’re exposed to extreme negativity, you have to protect yourself from it because there is definitely plenty to go around!  

My response to this question is going to be geared toward those teachers who are “Burned and Over-It”.   These are the teachers who are surrounded by so much negativity and apathy - whether it’s from their students, administration, co-workers, or personal life - and it’s starting to seep into your being and affecting other aspects of your life.  If you’re a “Burned and Unbalanced” teacher or a “Burned and Bored” teacher, what I’ll share will be helpful for anyone who is feeling bogged down by all the negativity that surrounds them on a daily basis. 


Things You Can Do if You’re Bogged Down by Negativity

So as you may already have predicted - I’m going to first suggest that you stop and reflect.  The step after this reflection may cause you to maybe get a little bit uncomfortable - remember, discomfort causes lasting change -  so reflecting first is important

So the first thing that I want you to reflect on is your own self-awareness first by...

#1: Asking yourself: Is there anything that you’ve said or done/not done that has let people think that it's okay to be negative around you?

Maybe you're a people pleaser or maybe you change yourself around different groups of people so that you can fit in or appease people. This sort of goes back to that human stress response that was talked about in Episode #157 - flight, fight, or fawn.  Do you feel like you’re just sort of a fawn in these situations and when people are negative you try to appease them because you don’t want to make them upset or you don’t want to turn them off from talking to you? When you’re in these situations, do you find yourself just agreeing or maybe saying nothing just to keep the peace with them? 

#2: Braindump - write down - all the negative things that you’re hearing and who you’re hearing them from.  

There’s a fine line between negativity and people actually telling you what they're struggling with. As a teacher myself, The last thing that I would want is for me to be advocating for myself or talking about things that are hard and for that to come across to somebody as negative.  Some people don’t have the self-awareness that they need to express their need for help without being negative.  Writing down the people and things that you consistently hear them say is like step three in the Burned-In Process which is about reflecting on your challenges, and right now, negative people and negative talk is a challenge for you.  Lean into these things and figure out why this is challenging you.  And after this work that you’ve been doing, you may figure out some sort of solution or an idea that you could share with them or a resource that could help them with what’s challenging them.  It’s also possible that you may realize that they are grumbling about the same thing over and over - such as the government's lack of respect for teachers, or the lack of pay, etc - and there really isn’t a solution that you can come up with together.

I really want you to start there, checking your own self-awareness and then also listing out the negative things that you're hearing, and who you're hearing them from, so that you can get to the bottom of why this is bothering you so much. Chances are when you do this practice, you're going to come up with some realizations about what is going to be your next best step for you. I've talked many, many, many times on this podcast about the importance of getting quiet and really doing some reflection so that you can either do some reframing or take action in some way. 

Ways to Avoid the Negativity

Here's the truth when it comes to negativity in any workplace, not just in a school. Sometimes we place ourselves in physical spaces with others who are negative, and because you’re self-aware you realize that this is not a space that you want to be in, you want to remove yourself from that negative space, right? But the reality is that we can't always just choose to remove ourselves from those negative spaces and places, at least not right away. So I'm going to offer you some pre-avoidance encouragement.  This work might feel kind of icky and uncomfortable at first because maybe you've never done these things, especially if you are a people pleaser, but I'm telling you change comes in the uncomfortable moments. 

If you can't avoid being in the same space with these people, which could be a real possibility, here's what I want to encourage you to do: 

#1: Put blinders on, ignore them, and don't let their negativity into your space. 

This comes from building mental strength.  Here are some strategies to help you to ignore this negative talk. 

  1. Make a list in your mind of some things that you're grateful for.
  2.  Become mindful of things that you are noticing around you by pausing, paying attention and being mindful of your bodily sensations and the things that you see and hear around you. 
  3. Instead of saying nothing, maybe you can say, is there a possible solution that we can come up with together? Or how can I help you with this?

#2: Build better boundaries. 

I've said this quote before and I come back to it over and over and over again: “If you don't set boundaries for what you will and will not tolerate, or for how people can and cannot treat you,  we can't be mad at them when they continually cross them.

You have to create a boundary to protect your mental and emotional health in these situations, and that can be uncomfortable, but it's okay to get uncomfortable.  When you approach building these boundaries, do so with a positive/neutral voice level and your body language, don’t approach these conversations with negativity or by being rude.  Boundaries are not rude, boundaries are actually a way to show love - it's a way to show love to yourself, and love to others because you're being kind, you're kindly letting them know what you will and will not tolerate. Here are a couple of suggestions for how to go about building these boundaries: 

    1. State what you would prefer. If they are able to take up space and tell you what they prefer, which is essentially telling you they prefer to complain, then you can tell them what you would prefer, such as I like it when I like it in our calm in our collaborations, when we talk about our plans for next week, so that we don't have to work over the weekend by ourselves, etc…
    2. Show your values.  If you've read Hacking Teacher Burnout and or you've gone through Burned-In Teacher University,  you have a set of very strong and steadfast core values and what's most important to you, show them through your conversations and actions. 
    3. State a consequence. This one is going to be different for everybody, depending on your specific situation.  Here’s an example:  If this negative commentary continues and does not become solution focused, I will have to _____ for my own mental health, I will have to leave. If you feel this is something that you would like to apply to your situation, I always suggest that you write it out first.  
    4. Create space, emotionallyFor example, this could sound like: I can’t eat with you anymore if you’re going to ____.  You're not blaming them, you're not shaming them, you're not disrespecting them, you're stating what you will need to do for your own energy and time, and mental health.

I go really deep into how to build these boundaries inside of Burned-In Teacher University.  In the course, I have a whole “Mindset Focus” lesson on building boundaries as well as a bonus lesson! 

#3: Explore the idea of change. 

If the space that you’re in is too negative and toxic, you could explore making a change - one that’s right for you and your situation and one that matches your values.  You could explore the thought or the idea of changing grade levels, changing districts, or changing where and with who you eat lunch with. 

#4: Find a safe space of support and learn how to become mentally strong. 

Find an inspiring podcast to listen to, a book to read, or even seek out another teacher in your building/space who also wants to create a positive workspace.  


I know these things are hard, and I know that you may be getting uncomfortable just thinking about these things, but the fact is if you want different results, you have to do something different

As you're looking at and applying these strategies, here’s something I want you to think about… Sometimes when we talk about our classes to other teachers, we tend to focus on the most challenging students, right? (I know I do!) When I do this, I have to catch myself and remind myself that the vast majority of my class is doing their very best every day and following our class rules and expectations; there are only a select few that are challenging and need a little more consistent support.  After doing this work, you might realize that it’s maybe just one or two people - not all your co-workers - that are negative, and I think that it’s fair to say that sometimes our attention goes to the people that suck our energy.  It’s like the “squeaky wheel gets the grease”, right?  I guarantee you that there are more people in your school who are not negative, who are positive, and proactive. And I guarantee if you start to pay attention to those people, your energy and your focus will begin to change and you'll be easier able to sort of put those blinders on and focus on doing the best that you can and being positive and proactive in your own job. 

If you’re looking for more either on this topic, or support with your burnout, I’d encourage you to check out these resources: 

  • Burned-In Teacher University: In Module 3 of Burned-In Teacher University we really focus on reflecting on our challenges, becoming more solution aware, and how to build healthy strong boundaries for our overall well-being. 
  • Tackle Your Teacher Burnout in 30 Minutes: In this FREE workshop, you’ll learn three shifts you can make today so you can begin to see change happen tomorrow.
  • Ask BIT: Submit your burnout questions and I’ll answer them in an upcoming episode.  

All right, everybody take a deep breath because you just took another step to become a Burned-In Teacher.  BURN ON everybody! 



  1. Write down the negative things that you hear during the day and who says them.
  2. Build a boundary to protect your time and energy. 
  3. Find support!  Find the resource that’s right for you: 





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