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Teacher Advice: Learn How to Say No

Teacher Advice: Learn How to Say No

Sometimes you just have to say "No."

As teachers, we're generally a positive, helpful bunch. When someone asks us to cover a class or share materials or serve on a committee, we tend to say yes.

But here is a bit of teacher advice: Learning to say no is an important skill some of us need to develop.

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When we're asked to take on more and more responsibilities, being comfortable saying no can keep us from being overburdened with tasks that take the focus off teaching. So next time someone asks you to cover bus duty, bake a cake for a colleague's birthday, or pick up folders at Office Depot on your way home, stop and think about the following advice:

Learn to Say No Nicely, But Firmly

You can learn to say no without feeling guilty, says Scholastic writer Margie Markarian. Her teacher advice is to practice three different ways to refuse a task:

  1. You can be gracious and say "Thanks for asking me, but I just can't do that today."
  2. You can be apologetic and say "I'm so sorry, but I'm already on overload."
  3. You can also buy time and say "I've just got too much on my plate right now, but maybe at another time."

The key is to stick with your refusal and not allow yourself to be pressured into agreeing to do something you don't want to do. Instead, use the broken-record technique by repeating "No, I just can't. Really, I just can't."

Further reading: 4 Teacher Motivation Tips to Keep You Going

Teacher and writer Paul Murphy has stronger teacher advice: Instead of saying "I can't," say "I don't."

For example, if asked to chaperone a dance, Murphy suggests teachers say "I'm a professional and I don't work for free." If asked to work on a project after school, say "I don't work on projects I'm not interested in." If you use this approach, though, it's important to exercise some caution: these techniques may be effective, but might not go over well with everyone. Especially your principal.

Keep in Mind That Saying No Gets Easier

Jennifer A., a 20-year veteran, says that it's rare that the principal asks her to take on responsibilities like lunch monitoring, bus duty, or chaperoning.

"I did that stuff when I was a beginning teacher," she explained. "Our principal thinks veterans have paid their dues, and he tends to ask the younger teachers to cover those kinds of duties."

That doesn't mean, however, that experienced teachers aren't asked to take on other responsibilities like serving on committees or heading up projects. "When it's something I care about, I'm likely to agree to help," she says. "But if not, I don't have a problem saying no because I've done many jobs like that in the past. It's time for somebody else to step up."

Second-year teacher Rebecca J. says, "I've been asked lots of times to cover classes or detention after school at the last minute. It's pretty hard to say no when you're just starting out because you want to be seen as a team player. But I did say no the third time a colleague asked me to cover her class during my planning period so she could make copies."

Adrienne M., who has taught for eight years, says, "I think experienced teachers have less of a problem saying no because they've been helping out for years. But everyone I know will cover a class or lunch duty or anything else in an emergency."

Find the Right Balance

Helping out now and then fosters a collegial and positive attitude in a school. But that's not to say you should accept every request that comes your way. When you already have plenty to deal with, feeling comfortable saying no is a skill all teachers need.

Further reading: Navigating Colleague Conflict

If you use that skill judiciously, it's likely that others will understand and respect your decision. And don't worry—you'll have another opportunity to say yes next week.