Just say no!

…If only it were that simple. The power and the pitfalls of saying no – when you’re in teaching…

Oct 2022

Just say no!

…If only it were that simple. The power and the pitfalls of saying no – when you’re in teaching…

Ok, ok. Call me out. I’m a self-employed trainer and coach. I’m NOT one of you…in the trenches of school life. Like a fish in a barrel round the coffee machine, for a member of the leadership team to somehow corral you into taking on a random extra responsibility you had no plan, wish for, or concept of at the start of your hard-pressed break-time.

It’s maybe easy from my more abstract point of view to speak of the power of saying no…But it’s something that comes up again and again in training work. Earlier this term, in a twilight webinar for ECTs, the issue of burnout was discussed – and the pressures of the school culture we can find ourselves in.

And yes – it’s all for the kids. We all want to be seen as a good egg. A team player. On the same page of commitment to the benefit of the future generation. It is so, so easy, for more to be more and for school life to be – in the words of one of my coachees – ‘a LOT’.

In my life as a school leader, teacher, part-timer, union rep…I got to see the costs and the benefits of having colleagues who’d step up and volunteer.

‘Can someone cover Year 9 Maths, period 5 today?’

‘We’re short of someone for X duty…’

‘We’re looking for volunteers for our weekend outreach to vulnerable pupils…’

‘Who can take on the Harvest Assembly in a fortnight?’

‘We need sign-ups for slots for the staff educational insights blog…’

‘Could you run a drop-in for Year 11s?’

Schools are very busy places – busting with ideas, fraught with changes of plan, unexpected absences, disclosures…And yes – we need to have each other’s backs. We need to deliver for the kids who are demanding, challenging, vulnerable, wonderful.

With this purpose-driven work, we almost instantly put pressure on ourselves – to prove ourselves. To be worthy of respect, to be outstanding. In this context, saying no is freighted with difficulty and may even feel taboo. Dangerous even.

This is tricky – I know from my long stint as an NEU rep…because saying yes, when you inner self is really screaming no, has a great deal of emotional labour involved. It’s wearing to feel you can’t have boundaries. It reduces your sense of agency, and leads to resentment, cynicism, overload, burnout.

But here’s the reframe that I think might help. With every decision that you make, you are saying yes to something, and no to something else.

Key coaching question…what are you saying yes to, and what are you saying no to…?

Creating a pause between the stimulus (being knobbled by someone with a job they want you to do) and your response…(seeking to please – or at least not damage your reputation) – not only allows you to be very purposeful about your next move, it enables you to frame your ‘no’ in a values-led way. This brings clarity not only about your why, but also about the costs to you in your unique, subjective and objective professional experience.

So yes, it is tempting in your first year in a new job to say yes to a pay rise and – for instance – taking on a role like coordinating the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, or the Debating team, or running a high-profile show. Until you realise you are saying yes to a lot of admin, travel, lost weekends…and no to your ability to bed in to your teaching, gain mastery of your new schemes of work, contribute to generating inspiring resources, get on the front-foot and feel mastery…

It is flattering to be asked to stand in for a term to cover for a Phase Leader or Head of Department…Until you realise the pay increment is minimal and there’ll be no time allowance.

And the bottom line is, in taking on the extras, if you’re not meeting base-line expectations in terms of the pace and power of your teaching, your ability to keep on top of pacy assessment and marking policies, the relentless reporting deadline…then there’ll be trouble.

Furthermore, if you’re not able to have sufficient time for internal and external recovery during the day and outside of the teaching day, then you are not fulfilling your first priority when it comes to your work and your life – which is taking care of yourself.

So – a fundamental strategy to take the heat out of the yes / no impression management dilemma…

  1. Slow things down.
  2. Listen to the ask, and deliberately regulate your breathing – especially if you feel your tell-signs of anxiety rising…racing thoughts, shallow breath, tension in your arms, clenching of your hands…colour to your face…
  3. If you can, ask a couple of basic questions to help get clarity about the scope of the task…the time-scale, the support available, who else has been asked / who else is involved, who would be the link-person supervising…what it was that made them think of you for this…
  4. Thank them for thinking of you for this. Explain you’d like a little time to think about it in relation to all the other things you’ve committed to – and you’ll get back to them…eg by the end of the next day. It’s certainly reasonable to ask to be able to sleep on it if it’s a fairly large ask. If it’s a smaller piece of business, but just feels like you’re really maxed out, explain that you’ve got a lot on, and just need to have a little think about how that might map out – and ask when they need to know by…Create a space for you to think it through.
  5. Get back to them when you’ve agreed, and once you’ve done your cost/benefit analysis and feel sure that you have some control over this scenario, and won’t regret being railroaded…

Some principles…

Very few people in this life are EVER going to give you time.

‘No-one will protect your time, or prioritize your needs as vigilantly as you…it can even become a health issue if you run yourself ragged.’ (Damon Zahariades – The Art of Saying No.)

What you should say no to…

Endless email seepage…not containing the boundless tide of emails by having a discipline around how and when you check and triage your work emails. Especially in the evenings and in your home-life space. Do you need to have them on your phone? Actually how often do you open your email up? Emails are other people’s agenda.

Taking on tasks that divert you from your principle goals for professional and personal mastery. This means you need clarity on what you want to achieve this term / half term. This means you can front-load your no with a very serious, professional and purpose-led reason (or yes)…

What this might look like…

Eg…Thanks for asking me to run the song-writing club on Wednesdays. However, I had really ring-fenced that time to work on reviewing and linking in library resources that complement our scheme of work (on whatever) in One Note. As you’ll remember, we’re looking at really promoting independent learning in that year-group and I had that as a goal to get done this half term so that it’s going to be of immediate- and that is actually the only free lunch time I have left…

…In other words, you’re wanting your no to be a strong, grounded no. Not a weasel no. You’re holding your ground, and you’re clarifying a boundary. If you say yes to this thing that’s a priority on your side of the street, back in the real world on my side of the street there’s a knock-on. And of course if it’s someone telling you their thing needs to be a priority and the other thing should be parked – then we’re all on the same page and expectations are managed.

Busy tasks – that are an unproductive use of your time…eg an invitation to sit in on meetings that have no direct relevance…or feel like a duplication of energy. You can then talk to what this is replacing, or suggest a way to flip the meeting so that it is more effective.

You need to say no to a pattern of term-time cancellation of important recovery, recreation and refreshment – having a private life away from your laptop that involves quality connection with friends and family to give perspective and a mental holiday from the to-do list. And to the the ability to have sufficient exercise…

The practice:

  1. Slow things down and plan your no’s
  2. Practice in lower stakes situations…
  3. Consult your planner and your priorities list.
  4. Be polite – but firm. ‘Thank you for thinking of me. I can’t take anything else on right now – I’ve just committed to quite a lot of development work after our phase / department meeting…but please think of me another time…’
  5. Reassure yourself – saying no doesn’t make you a bad person. From childhood, we are not conditioned to do this – but it is part of autonomous adulthood.
  6. From Greg McKeown’s book – Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less..’say what you’re not doing, but couch it in terms of what you are willing to offer…’ ‘You’re welcome to use my lesson plan and send that it to the cover supervisor…’ In other words, I’m not going to informally cover for you and deliver your lesson as an extra…but I will help you make it less onerous to set the work and follow the normal cover protocols.
  7. Offer an alternative. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t lead a training session on X in time for that meeting. But I could provide something on Y – that’s where I think I could add best value to the team in that time-scale.

…I hope this has been helpful food for thought…something that might empower to to continue to wake up, give kindly, and kick ass…

To break the heavily conditioned pattern we all tend to have in a tight knit group of caring professionals which can involve letting our own needs slide, while continually catering to others.

I know that this does not absolve workplaces of more systemic issues when it comes to burnout, work-load, and work pressure. But it immediately is something we can all have more agency with, and in actioning our grounded, elegant ‘no’s’, we can contribute to a more elevated, values led discussion about what extras can and can’t be done. It’s easy to add to the load…just another meeting. Just another duty…It’s harder to take things away to make the space for it all to happen in a prioritised, strategic, effective, and sustainable way.

If you feel your work environment is hostile to you being able to manage your workload, and that there is a pressuring culture, that is somewhat fearful and detrimental to your ability to look after your wellbeing and have reasonable rest and restoration…then you should consult with trusted line managers, mentors, if you feel that’s possible. If that feels risky, you should speak to your union representative as a starting point, before seeking professional legal advice via your union.

There are working guidelines about time off! Under Working Time Regulations 1998 a worker is entitled to an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes when daily working time is more than 6 hours. You’re entitled to a rest period of 11 consecutive hours in each 24 hour period. And one day off a week – which can be averaged over 2 weeks. So take stock, and take action, if you’re routinely having to work beyond those basic thresholds and on a sustained basis.

Consult the Gov.uk website pages on Reducing School Workload:


Consult the resources and articles on your union website.

Develop your professional network and consult – within and beyond the sector you work in and precipitate an informed and constructive debate about how we can work better together, sustainably.

Enjoy half term! And if you’re looking for a more bespoke approach to CPD, get in touch regarding my coaching and training services.

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