Saying "No:" Why it's So Hard and So Important

Saying no. The truth about setting boundaries is being able to say no with conviction and authority. One little word that can feel so difficult or wrong to say. But being able to say no to the wrong things can make all the difference in your teaching career and life.


In this previous post, you learned about five ways you can set boundaries as a teacher so your job doesn’t take over your personal life. One of those five ways was saying no to things when you're already at capacity and/or your heart’s just not in it. I realize that it’s not as easy as it sounds, and as you begin to prepare for next year in the midst of wrapping up this one, it’s important that we talk about how important this really is - because you can’t have boundaries without being able to say it.


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Let me preface this with I am not telling you to be insubordinate. It’s not about saying no to the needs of our students, or not writing lesson plans, or not showing up for recess duty. It’s about all the little things you get asked to do that aren’t essential to your job or being the teacher your students need - like taking on a student teacher when you really feel you need some time to teach your class without having to teach someone else how to teach your class. Or taking on another committee that meets after school, when you’re already exhausted at the end of the day and your own kids have commitments in the evenings. It can also mean saying no to something you’ve always done, because you’re feeling burnt out and you want to pursue other things.

I strive to tell you the truth so that you can be true to yourself. And to do that, we’ve got to unpack some terms you’ve seen me refer to a lot, because they’re the reason we have a hard time saying no.

The Martyr Mentality

The first is the Martyr Mentality. The belief that you have to give all of yourself - for the sake of your job - because your job is changing kids’ lives. You feel as a teacher it’s wrong, maybe downright immoral, to deny anyone anything that in any way could make your students’ better learners or have a better school experience. Your needs - and often the needs of those you live with - come second. Regardless of the fatigue, lack of free time, or the growing resentment inside of you, you keep doing it because you feel it’s your duty to sacrifice yourself.


The Busy Badge

Then there’s the Busy Badge, and some of us wear this proudly, humble bragging about how much we have to do. In a way it make you feel like you have purpose, with so much to do and so much expected of you. Having free time or a weekend away from doing school work would just make you feel empty or incomplete. Maybe you even like to lament on social media every once in a while about all the things you “have” to do just to eek out some sympathetic comments and praise to confirm to yourself your worth.


The Superhero Syndrome

And lastly, there’s the Superhero Syndrome. It's a close cousin of the martyr mentality but a little more serious. You’ve bought into the hype that teachers are superheroes and can do anything with any situation. Stay up past midnight grading tests, deal with a classroom chock full of behavior issues, take a student from a first grade reading level to a fourth in six months, stay until seven every evening to make sure your room is perfectly prepared for the next day. You can do it! Sleep is for the weak! You are…SUPER TEACHER!!!


When you hear it, it does start to sound a little nuts. Because you alone aren’t responsible for your students’ shortcomings, nor will you be able to meet them even half way if you martyr yourself to the point where you can't even take care of yourself. That busy badge? It may make you feel proud to wear it, but deep down, you know it’s a heavy accessory and you wish you could just feel like you were enough with less. And you can be a super teacher, without trying to emulate the Hulk or Captain America by powering through an obscene amount of expectations and letting your very mortal well-being disintegrate.


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It all starts by saying no to the things you know aren’t meant for you at any moment in time. But I get it. Letting go of the Martyr Mentality, Busy Badge, and Superhero Syndrome is hard. It all points back to teacher guilt. The shame of having to admit that too much really is too much. That we’d be happier with less. That all the extra junk - some of which is self imposed - is keeping us from even wanting to stay in the classroom.


The irony isn’t lost on me that teaching, the cornerstone profession of the humanities, denies many of us the right to be human. And that’s been put to the test this year. You can’t say no until you understand the forces behind it. I know this because I am a recovering teachaholic. I was all the above things, and pushed myself beyond what I needed to do for my physical and emotional health because I thought it made me a better teacher - and made up for all the other things I perceived as shortcomings in my life.


I had to crash and burn to see the light. Also, I read The Best Yes by Lysa Terkeurst, a book all about saying no. I read it in two days, over one Thanksgiving weekend. That’s what it took for me to realize I was killing myself and my relationships - and that many of the things I was committing myself to were no longer my assignment.


And I want better for you - instead of being burnt out pouring over a book on a holiday weekend. You have a purpose and can make an enormous impact on this world - but you won’t find it and have peace in your life if you can’t say no and take everything on.

As I’ve said before, it comes down to opportunity cost. No means yes to something else - and vise versa. It’s a reckoning to admit that some things are not meant for you - or anyone! There are things that no longer serve a purpose in education or that could be done more effectively, without being the time suck or the formality that they currently are!


Another reason saying no is important? Resentment. Over time, you may continue to do all the things, but if you truly are at a point where it isn’t sustainable or you need a break, you’re not going to be happy or fulfilled - or healthy. And all those ugly feelings begin to color how well you do all the things, to the point where they would probably be better done by someone else. Being jaded and resentful of your lack of time and energy doesn’t do anyone any favors. And it’s not a good use of your purpose as a teacher, spouse, or friend.


You’re allowed to have a plan for your career, hobbies, and family. You’re allowed to change - that’s normal as you go through life and experience different things. That’s just as important, if not more, than your job. Being a teacher is enhanced by all of those aspirations you have, because kids and future teachers need to see you as a well rounded, fulfilled human being - not a martyr or a superhero. That’s not going to attract people to the profession or encourage kids to have healthy habits.

So how do you go about saying this “no” word, because I know you fear the backlash and disappointing others. At this link, you’ll find a cheat sheet you can keep by your computer or desk of ways you can say no. But honestly, only one way matters - and that you say it and mean it. You don’t need to defend your reasoning to prove it to yourself more than anything why it’s not for you to do.

You also don’t need to sit on the fence. If you’re asked to do something, it’s okay to need some time to think about if it’s the right fit for you. But don’t prolong your response if you know you really can’t do something. Dragging your feet out of fear of how the other person is going to respond won’t make it any easier.


Nothing breaks your resolve to start saying no more than upsetting or disappointing people. You may feel terrible at first, like you’re the bad guy or girl, or “the one who doesn’t care.” When someone really wants you to do something, because they genuinely need a warm body, you can be guilted or manipulated into saying yes. So in these cases, it helps to have a script of some sort - like this download of ways to say no - to repeat and affirm your intentions. If you think it would help, you may want to have a sit down with your administrator to let them know you need to cut back on your commitments. You can provide some reasons why if you want, but not if it’s going to be used to try to get you to change your mind. Don’t let someone treat you like a child - and even kids should have their feelings respected.


The reality is you may very well learn who genuinely cares about you - even in a school where the mantra is “we’re a family” - when you are no longer able or willing to do something. Sometimes it reveals a toxic dynamic that you didn’t notice, and then you have some other decisions you have to make.

I know it feels awful when you’ve let someone down. But understand that a lot of that feeling come from basing too much of your self worth on your job and the identity that comes from doing all the things. We’ve been conditioned to believe this good/bad narrative about ourselves. Life has many aspects, education has many aspects - you may get to explore them if you start saying no and establishing boundaries. But the demands of teaching will continue to be unreasonable until more of us step in as the voice of reason.

This doesn’t mean you start saying no to everything! If an opportunity presents itself to be a part of something you’ve been waiting for or that excites you, go for it! This profession needs people who have found their niche and are doing the things that make them feel alive. You may find when you start saying no to the things that feel wrong, you can better pick up on the opportunities that feel right.

You have a purpose and worth beyond anything you can comprehend - but without some white space in your life, you may never find it. Your “yes” and your time, talents is worth something and you get to use it at your discretion. Being a fulfilled, happy person can make you a fulfilled, happy teacher - and allow you to be who you are meant to be and the teacher your students need to see.

To review, saying no to things to are too much or are not right for you is the most important thing you to set boundaries. For too long you’ve been driven by the false narratives of the Martyr Mentality, Busy Badge, and Superhero Syndrome. Saying no gives you time to think, live, and be present. There are ways to say no, but the most important thing is to say it with confidence, so you don’t leave people hanging or misinterpreting your response. Not everyone is going to like it, and it may hurt. But your worth as teacher and person is greater than one more committee assignment. Hold out for the things that make you excited energized, and your no may be the most important yes you say.


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