by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Your principal requests that you join a new committee at your school.
Your assistant principal asks if you would “mind” taking over yard duty for a few months.
A colleague pleads with you to sponsor a new club you’d be “perfect” for.
The list of extra things to do goes on and on. For an educator, it’s practically a reflex to blurt out “yes” to all of these things — when you would prefer saying no to some of them.
More and more is being expected from school employees these days. As schools transition to the Common Core State Standards, there are more professional development workshops, committees to serve on and lessons to plan. All of these things can add hours to the work day.
But sometimes, you have to draw the line, CTA members say.
“For the last several years, we have been asked to do more and more in the way of paperwork,” says Pye Cornejo, a teacher at Collett Elementary School and Alvord Educators Association member. “We have seen exploding class sizes and have bitten the bullet, accepting pay cut after pay cut. Through it all, we have leaned into the yoke, pulling ourselves, our colleagues and our students along, all the while wearing ourselves down even more. I see my colleagues walking around looking exhausted after only four weeks of school. I see them continually sick. So yes, there are indeed times when you have to say no.”
But it can be hard to say no
It sounds easy to say no (2-year-olds say it all the time), but for an adult, it’s tricky. Uttering the word “no” can be downright uncomfortable, even when you have good reasons.
“You want to do all these things and be at all these events,” says Ronda White, literacy specialist at Brentwood Oak Elementary School in East Palo Alto. “But you may have a family at home. Or you may commute 30 to 50 minutes a day, and staying later at school means terrible traffic. You might be one of the many teachers who have a second job or are working on a master’s degree. It’s hard to say no because you’re here for the kids and community. You want to be part of what’s going on.”
Educators feel obligated to say yes even when they have a lot on their “supersized” plates, says Jim Remington, a math and science teacher at Bowditch Middle School in Foster City.
“Let’s face it — saying no is difficult. It seems to imply negativity, and humans have a desire to be happy and positive. The word ‘yes’ is a happy word. When you say yes to someone they smile. Everyone is happy. Well, maybe not everyone. Perhaps you’ve said yes to someone — and you were not happy about it at all.”
Classified employees have an especially hard time saying no, says Duval “Sam” Phillips, maintenance worker and president of the Potter Valley ESP chapter.
“We are part of the community here, and our children and sometimes grandchildren have gone to school here, so there’s an obligation a lot of the time to do what you can. I say yes all the time. I think I can save the world sometimes, so I help kids after school, sponsor the multicultural club, and help in an after-school program called Kudos that provides supervision and homework help. It’s for the kids, so I’m a yes man. I help everybody else. But when it comes to me, I’m not a very good advocate. There are times when I should say no, but I don’t.”
Of course, there are times when you should unequivocally say yes.
“You should say yes when you agree with your whole heart that it will be an important and enjoyable task and see the benefits of saying yes, so you approach it with all your energy,” says Remington.
Before saying no, make sure you are fulfilling your contract obligations, advises White, Ravenswood Teachers Association co-vice president. When in doubt, check with chapter leaders, she suggests. Some things, such as professional development workshops that take place during the workday, may be mandatory, while events that take place after school and during the weekends may be optional. Administrators, who don’t want to spend money hiring subs, may act as though professional development workshops during off hours are mandatory when in fact they are not. Just say, “Let me get back to you on that,” and consult your contract or chapter president before saying no.
How to say no
“I already have too much on my plate.”
“I’d like to, but I can’t because...”
“You probably should find someone else who can bring more expertise to this project.”
There are ways to say no — and ways to say no without really saying no, says Remington, who says he has no guilt about putting himself first.
One way to avoid having to say no is to volunteer for something you like to do before you are asked to do something you’d rather not. It’s better to serve on committees or work on events that you enjoy, and volunteering for these things in advance can head off a request for something you abhor. White, for example, always volunteers for Family Literacy Night and organizing the Science Fair because she enjoys these things — making it easier to turn down other requests.
Sometimes it’s best to delay your answer. If asked without warning by your principal to serve on a committee, for example, it’s best to listen and get all the facts. For example, will you be compensated, how much prep time is expected, and when will meetings be held and where? Explain that you need a day or two to consider it. Then talk to other staff about the work involved. If it doesn’t appeal to you, ask about other committees or projects that need volunteers. You can decline the task you’ve been asked to do and volunteer for another, says Remington.
Of course, there are times when you must say no to something without saying yes to something else. Say it simply, plainly and tactfully. Provide a reason, such as lack of interest, lack of time or lack of expertise. Stand your ground firmly. “I must bow out” and “I regret that I must decline” are good phrases.
Cornejo has no problem telling administrators no because she has “too much on her plate.” She believes when educators say no more often, expectations become more reasonable, and “we can do our jobs to the best of our abilities.”
“I am simply saying do the best that you can and leave the rest to tomorrow. Is it worth your health? Is it worth your mental well-being? Is it worth the time lost from your families, the stress and the demoralization? The answer to these questions is no, and it’s time for us to start using that word.”
Once you’ve said no, don’t feel bad, Remington advises.
“Remember, it’s not personal, it’s business. Instead of feeling bad, feel good that you have more time to devote to what you want to do, not what someone else expects you to do. The person who’s asking you to do something has someone else in mind as a backup. If you tell them no, it’s not the end of the world. They will simply move on to the next person.”
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