Planning, parent communication, classroom setup, tutoring, report cards, IEPs, faculty meetings, department meetings, district arts meetings, parent night, concerts, fundraisers, extracurricular activities, professional development, recertification, grading, differentiation, testing, curriculum development, documentation, copies, class blogs, parent-teacher conferences, impromptu parent-teacher conferences, filing papers, sharpening pencils, fixing xylophones, budgeting, expense reports, purchase orders, grant applications, purchasing supplies, planning field trips, fire drills, tornado drills, active shooter drills, impromptu counselling, bulletin boards, seating charts, finding the latest educational app, planning field trips, first aid, designing assessments, child safety training, lunch duty, classroom management, classroom management, classroom management.

Also, teaching.

And just in case you are still getting three or four hours of sleep a night, someone thinks that you should find the time to head up that new committee, or get your kids to perform at the upcoming parent night, or help put together the yearbook. You know you need to say “no”, but it makes you uncomfortable and insecure to do it. You might make someone upset, or they’ll think you’re lazy, or you’ll miss out on some other opportunity later. And maybe it really is a time when you should say “yes”. But there are also times when you really need to say “no”. 

A couple years ago, my head of school introduced me to the idea of a “professional ‘no’”. He said that in our busy workplace, with so many new initiatives and new ideas, we can easily lose the balance in our lives. He recognized that our wellness affects our teaching. There has to be a limit, at some point, of what you can take on. So if it’s time for a professional “no”, here are a few thoughts to help you through.

  • Hear out the request, but if it isn’t an appropriate fit for, or even takes away from, your teaching and learning goals, then be clear about it. “That sounds like an interesting opportunity, but at this point in the year, we need to focus on preparing for the spring concert.”
  • Show that you are grateful for the opportunity, but as you consider the big picture, there are other things that must take priority right now. “Thank you for thinking of me for this, but I really need to use those Thursday evenings to focus on the child safety training we’ve been assigned.”
  • Explain the thinking and reasoning behind it, rather than just giving a general “no”. “We invested a lot of time last year reviewing and updating our curriculum documents. Given how much thought and work the team has put into it, I believe we should have a chance to execute these ideas before we try to implement another layer on top of that.”
  • Perhaps it is something where you genuinely don’t have the skillset to do it efficiently and effectively. “I think that updating the look of the school website is a great idea, but unfortunately I don’t have a lot of knowledge about usability or web design.”
  • It is okay to have work-life balance, and having that balance will make your teaching better. “Normally I would be happy to help out, but on Monday after school I pick up my son and practice with him. That time is really important to both of us.”
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  • If you are genuinely uncertain about how this might affect your employment, then *ask* to say “no”. “I am afraid that taking on this extra responsibility will take away from the time I spend assessing my students’ work. I normally spend that planning period marking and recording feedback for the students to set their next goals, and this might be spreading myself too thin. If there really is no one else who can do it, then I can take it on and try my best. What do you think?” You’ve shown your reasons, your willingness, and your professionalism. It’s now up to the person asking to decide if they are happy to spread you too thin and settle for a lower quality, of if they would rather find a better solution.

If you need to say “no”, you probably already have an idea why. Be clear and honest about your reasons, and be clear enough that you aren’t leading them to think your answer will change, unless your “no” really is only temporary. Use a fairly neutral tone: not so snappy that the person reacts negatively, and not so soft that the person just thinks he or she needs to convince you. 

Acknowledge that it may disappoint the person asking, and perhaps offer if there are other (smaller or more relevant) ways that you might be able to help. This will show that you are willing to be a team player, and it’s not just a refusal to help out.

Our job is as taxing and exhausting as it is inspiring, but you need to have balance and take care of yourself in order to keep doing the best you can for your students. Decide what your goals and priorities are for the year, and stay true to them. Good luck!

The Professional “No”
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