Learning to Say No... And Sticking to It.

When I was a very young teacher, I think I spent almost every single lunchtime working with students. On Mondays, despite no discernible talent, I would run the chess club. On Tuesdays, we would have Oz Tag training. On Wednesdays, the student debating club would meet. On Thursdays, I would help out wiht the student leadership council. On Fridays, I think I collapsed in a heap… before going to debating later that evening.

Upon reflection, I had failed to learn one of the most important skills for any early career teacher.

Learn to Say No.

There really is no other way of putting it, and it’s difficult to overemphasise how important this simple rule is. As a young teacher - and this is doubly true if you are working casually or on a temporary contract - you want to be noticed by your coordinator or the principal in a positive way. So the temptation is to volunteer for everything - and anything - regardless of whether you have any expertise or even any time to devote to it. Young teachers are often seen as easy targets, too, by teachers looking for people to help out with debating on Friday night, or to go on school camp, or any of a dozen other things that schools offer to students.

There’s nothing wrong with doing any of this - indeed, I think these kinds of co-curricular activities are part of what makes schools much more than just another workplace. But there is a danger in trying to do all of this - that’s something that even experienced teachers would be hesitant to do - and when you’re a young teacher trying to learn the craft of teaching, adding on to all of these

That’s why it’s important to say no to some of these things. This might seem like an impossibility, but it’s not. Schools live off the goodwill of teachers - but , just like everything else, there is only a limited amount of that goodwill, and you, as a teacher, need to know when to say no. Of course, there are requirements that are part of the job of teaching. You can’t say no to writing reports or teaching lessons for example, and even events like parent-teacher nights are simply part of the job. However, you can - and should be encouraged to - say no to excessive responsibilities and duties that add to the already staggering workload teachers face.

A good way to think of it is like this: your primary responsibility is to your classes. You need to commit to being the best practitioner you can be. There’s no way that you can do this if you are spending every other minute of your work day focusing on co-curricular activities. You need some downtime in order to reflect and develop your teaching. You also need to spend some time on caring for yourself so you don’t get burnt out. This is a good reason to say no.

There is a bit of an art to saying no to things. It’s natural to want to please people - but I think being honest about your commitments and limited time is always the best way forward. I think that a good formula to follow includes:

  • Acknowledging the importance of the program (e.g. the musical, the prayer group etc)
  • Affirming your desire to be involved (e.g ‘That sounds like something I would really like to do’).
  • Explaining your limitations (e.g. ‘Unfortunately, I don’t have time at the moment’ or ‘I’m working on my teaching for this term.’)

I’m not suggesting that you should say no to every single co-curricular activity that your school is organising - far from it. What I am arguing is that by limiting your involvement to what is reasonable, your teaching will benefit, as will your work-life balance.