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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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An illustration of a clock, with a person sleeping on the minute hand.

Please read this whole thing before you adopt my 2015 mantra, just say no, which I am going to offer you as a way to deal with an dilemma that we all face, that there's never enough time. I really don't want you to think that I'm offering you permission to become an ornery contrarian, but I will admit that this is my 2015 time management strategy.

I am resolved to say no more often, to say it to activities and tasks that don't align with my big goals, to say it to projects that I don't believe will yield the kinds of results I want to see for children, and to say it to people who don't nourish my professional soul.

That all sounds so negative, I know, "no, no, no." But it's not really about the no; it's about what I'll be able to say yes to. Because what I'm learning, painfully slowly, is that whenever I say no, I have a whole lot more space in the yes column. So saying no really means yes to something or someone else.

I've done just a wee bit too much saying yes. When I was a new teacher (taking night classes three to four times a week) I said, "Yes, I'll be on the social committee, and, yes, I'll participate in this extra professional development initiative, and, yes, I'll visit every single one of my student's homes, and yes, I'll translate those Very Important Meetings, and yes... ."

You get the idea. I wish (now, in retrospect) that someone (an administrator, mentor, veteran teacher) had told me to say no. Had kicked me out or barred me entry. I wish someone had told me: "Just focus on your lesson planning, getting enough sleep, and visiting student homes." Without anyone else to set boundaries for me and unable to do so myself (I've struggled with this for many decades), I was overextended and I suffered.

I have very, very slowly worked on this tendency to overextend myself. Confession: Sometimes I do think I'm some kind of superhero and while I always sleep enough, other aspects of my life limp along while I say "yes" left and right. I'm grateful for the opportunities, so very grateful; but sometimes my ego takes over and is flattered by the invitations. And sometimes I say yes to things that I really want to do, that I know will be a contribution to children, but it's still too much.

Develop the Criteria for Saying "Yes"

So, here's what I'm working on: the criteria for why I'll say yes to some work-related thing. And I'd like to suggest to you that you articulate that criteria for yourself, for the things around which you have choice. There are many things that we have to do and can't say no to but then there are things we have choice over -- and we may even have choice over more things than we think.

For instance, maybe you're teaching in a school which compels you to attend soul-sucking professional development and staff meetings, or maybe you have to teach a scripted curriculum that you suspect is killing the souls of your students. So maybe, right now, you have to say yes because you can't risk losing your job, but you may not have to say yes next year. You could explore alternatives (they do exist) and then in May, you could say, "No, thank you, I do not want to return next year because... ." (Here's a tip: When you say no, it helps to be kind and also explain why you're saying no.)

I have two criteria that I consider when considering a new project. First, I consider the impact that I might have on children; I want my energies to benefit particularly our most vulnerable children. Second, I reflect on how much joy the project may bring me. I'm big on bringing more joy into my life, after all, I know it's going to be a short one.

So for example, I'm not sure about the impact that my writing will have on kids, but I love to write. It brings me tremendous joy. I lose myself in the flow and emerge happier and calmer than when I opened my laptop. I do believe that there's a connection between joy and impact on kids, that the work I do that comes from my happy place will have a positive impact on kids. I just believe that.

As a teacher, I didn't love lesson planning, and I had the option of saying no to it (no one asked for lesson plans), but I knew that when I had planned, my impact on kids was great. And I also relished the satisfaction of executing a well thought-out lesson -- that satisfaction brought me joy. That's why I lesson planned.

Know why you're saying no. Because what you're really doing is clarifying what you'll say yes to.

"No" Also Means "Not Right Now"

One way to think about the things you say no to is to remember that just because you say no doesn't mean that at some other time you can't say yes. So "No, I can't be on the social committee this year, but maybe next year," or, "No, I can't be a chaperone on that awesome-sounding field trip now, but maybe another time." Saying no doesn't mean forever and it doesn't mean that you don't like someone.

Oh! That's a trap to be aware of: Do you say yes because you're afraid that someone won't like you if you say no, or because you don't want to hurt their feelings? I'm about to send an email that says, "Thank you so much for the dinner invitation. I'm very grateful but need to decline this month because I'm anticipating that I'll be exhausted and not good company. I hope we can do it some other time!" I'm trying to be as warm as possible, and hope that their feelings aren't hurt, but if they are, that's something I have to live with. I ultimately can't control how others will feel.

This is my 2015 experiment: saying no. I am excited and relieved and have already said no a few times and it's been absolutely fine and I'm seeing the space that opens from the no and all the yeses I'll be able to declare. Rather than feeling negative, no is feeling like a wide-open, hopeful, free place. I can't wait to say yes to the things I'll say yes to. Happy 2015 to you all.

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Sarah James's picture

Hey Elena. Thanks for the article. I am sorry that your mantra is changing to "NO". My time management used to be really bad and I couldn't find any time for my hobbies and projects. After few months I finally decided to dig into this problem and I easily discovered that I didn't have a work/life balance. I quit my job and decided to become a freelancer (I am working in the media industries) and be my own boss. I've also started to use a time tracking app (https://www.timeneye.com) that is currently helping me to manage different projects and clients. I have switched from saying no to a a more satisfactory YES!

Jennifer Ringo's picture
Jennifer Ringo
Training Specialist, University of Mississippi Writing Project

Wonderfully written and excellent advice, especially to new teachers. I became much happier when I learned to say "No" respectfully, and often!

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Thanks, Elena, for bringing this into the language of the teacher. I find more and more senior administrators taking this path, but it is a skill or discipline that all leaders (and I absolutely believe that teachers must be every bit the "leader" as the CEO) can build on. I am halfway through reading "Essentialism" by George McKeown, recommend in a post by Dr. Brett Jacobsen (http://drbrettjacobsen.com/2014/12/29/designing-future/) , head at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta via Lead + Design...all K-12 folks and organizations that I really respect in the areas of innovation, design, and leadership. The McKeown book is probably longer than it needed to be, but the "essential" elements of the discipline to say "no" to good ideas are there.

Anna Martino's picture
Anna Martino
Librarian for a school library

This is something I have been working on too. It is a good reminder and also good to know that I was not alone in my struggle to say "no." Honestly, just this morning, I was like "I can do it all!" But I can't and that's ok. Thank you for this reminder!

Andrea Hernandez's picture
Andrea Hernandez
Teacher, learner, parent, change-agent… Evolving.

I so super-relate. In fact, this reminded me of something I wrote (on my non-teacher, more personal blog in 2011: Yes or No? https://effortandease.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/yes-or-no/
I like how you have defined your simple criteria for saying yay or nay.
I think a downside of our connected world is just more life-clutter. And those of us who try our best to always do our best sometimes end up hurting ourselves by over-extending. I just read this short piece from Glennon Doyle Melton today about forgiving ourselves when we mess up, and I think this is related as well. http://momastery.com/blog/2015/01/13/parenting-and-life/
By the way, it brought me joy to leave this comment :-)

Lilly Houston's picture

Thank you for sharing this mantra. I too over extend and I plan to committ to myself and finding joy in my classroom this year!

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