Teacher Wellness

It’s OK to Say No

Sometimes teachers take on so much work that they lose their sense of purpose. Here are a few steps you can take to avoid that.

August 7, 2017

I just finished my first year at a new school. I feel like that sentence is enough—anyone who has just completed their first year anywhere knows how challenging it can be. Adjusting to new students and colleagues as well as new structures and curriculum is a big task.

With all these moving parts, it’s easy to get caught up in constantly being busy. In fact, I recently read an article in The Atlantic that resonated with me. “‘Ugh, I’m So Busy’: A Status Symbol for Our Time” articulates what many of us experience and how “I’m busy” is an all-too-common phrase these days. I’ve been extremely guilty of this. When I run into colleagues, I feel the need to explain how busy I am, with too many tasks and numerous meetings.

Being busy is seen as a good thing, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, as we transition to a new school year, we have an opportunity to push back on that narrative and not focus on being busy, but instead slow down and take stock of ourselves and our purpose.

What’s Your Why?

Because the first year in a new role is a whirlwind, it’s easy to lose track of why you decided to take on the challenging role of educator. It’s easy to get discouraged with the many tasks and the overall state of being busy. I’ve learned to take time to center myself and remember why I’m doing the work I’m doing. Some might do more formal mediation or even reflective journaling.

Regardless, taking the time to remember your why is important. Why did I get into teaching? Why do I believe in the power of elementary education? Why is what I do every day important to my students? These questions can inspire you and encourage you to look past all the hustle and bustle of daily work in education to your true purpose.

What’s the Why?

As with our reasons for being an educator, we should never be afraid to question traditions and normal day-to-day tasks. Traditions are powerful, so powerful in fact that questioning them can seem awkward or even offensive. Traditions are traditions because they have powerful meaning to many people, but we must also remember that changing times might require traditions to adapt or perhaps be discarded.

At my school, we’ve had some challenges with our exploratory program, where students get to spend school time investigating and exploring topics and tasks of their choice. The program generally yields great results, but recently the results have been inconsistent and called into question. This is completely normal. Sometimes programs need to be analyzed and refined. A team was formed to do just this. From the meetings of this team, we created a clear purpose statement for exploratory. We rediscovered our why for the program, which will help us make decisions as we move forward and will give us a sense of purpose and meaning.

As you start a new school year, make sure to consider the why of the many things that occur in school. Doing so will allow you and others to ensure that what you’re doing is focused and not just busy work.

It’s OK to Say No

We can’t do it all. In fact, I push back on the narrative that teachers are superheroes. Teachers are amazing, but the pitfall of being a superhero is taking on too heavy a burden. In that spirit, be OK with saying no to offers. Take on leadership roles, be part of committees, and coach, but also know that too much work can take its toll. Take stock on your many jobs, roles, and activities, and go ahead and say, “No, thank you. I have a lot of great things I’m working on, and I don’t want them to suffer if I’m stretched too thin.”

Similarly, feel free to look for others to take on roles or jobs you may no longer want. I have a colleague who recently became a proud father. He was a leader of many activities and coached every season, but he decided to give up some leadership opportunities to spend more time with his child. When he explained this to his principal, the principal completely understood. Explaining your priorities can make saying no a lot easier.

I’d like to hope that next year I won’t be so busy. I look forward to meaningful work, but not the pressure to do more and to be so busy that I lose sight of my sense of purpose. As educators, we have an opportunity to change the narrative from “being busy” to “being productive and purposeful.”

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