Just Say No - the Importance of Knowing Your Litmits

Teachers are an odd bunch.  We are forever trying to cram 38 hours into a 24 hour day then complaining that we have no time.  We bend over backwards to help people but rarely accept help from others.  We spend almost 6 hours a day teaching children to produce their best work by focussing on it... then forget to do that ourselves.

We need to learn to say no.

In the spirit of this week's blog post, I am going to be brief because I have a lot of things to do today (my list is colour-coded and time-coded...).  

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I was once asked by a Headteacher to write 30 individual reports for a parent/teacher evening.  There was nothing special about the evening; just a regular mid-term catch-up.  Now, here in the UK we have a teachers' union called the NUT and they produced a very helpful guideline about the sort of work teachers should be expected to do (it's here if you want to see it).  It stated that, as teachers, we could be expected to write one report per child per academic year.  Most of us would take this to mean the end of year report (although there is no legal obligation for a class teacher to write this either - it is the obligation of the Headteacher, who may choose to delegate it to colleagues).  

So I said no.  I would not be writing an extra 30 reports for a parents' evening.

This was not met with hugs and smiles.  I was asked why I would 'disobey a direct order' (it was that kind of place) and I said that I would be writing the end of year report and that was all I was obliged to do.  I added that I would not be writing anything in these extra reports tha I wouldn't be telling the parents directly and that the parents were welcome to make any notes, or even record the meetings if they so chose.  I thought that was reasonable.  

The Headteacher did not.

We 'discussed' it for about half an hour after which I told her that my time is finite and I can only do so much with it.  If these reports were that important to her vision for the school, that I wanted to know which of my numerous other tasks should be sacrificed for them to be written.

This shocked her into silence.  No-one had ever put it like that.  And this is what I'm talking about.
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I used to arrive at school for 7am and leave at 7pm.  I sometimes took half an hour for lunch, but mostly I ate on the job.  I rarely stopped to chat in the staff room.  When I was in the building, I was working.  I made lists (colour- and time-coded) and I checked them off.  Honestly, what more could I do?

I have spoken to many teachers old and new and there is a common theme of never doing enough.  As teachers, if we are asked to do something, especially if we are guilted into it with an innocuous 'it's only a little thing...' we'll say yes.  Sometimes we'll say yes at the cost of going home on time.  Or eating.  

We need to learn to say NO.

This doesn't need to be a rude or abrasive thing.  It should be empowering.  Let's look at it from a management point of view...

Let's say you were asked to submit an extra report, or cover a lesson, or anything above and beyond what you're already expected to do.  You agree and you go about getting it done.  Either you get the extra work done on time but your other work suffers, or you get everything done but to a lesser standard than you would like, or you get everything done to a high standard but have had to sacrifice personal time to achieve it.

You hand the extra work in and your manager might be pleased with it, in which case they may well say well done.  Or, more likely, you'll hand it in and, if it's sub-par, you won't be thanked at all and their estimation of you will decrease; or you'll hand it in and they will be impressed but think that you have this extra time available all the time and will raise the bar to this new level.  Worst case scenario, you hand it in late or not at all and end up looking like a disorganised mess.  Meanwhile, your colleagues who don't accept the extra work are not seen as less than you; they are seen as managing their time better because they don't have any spare!

Now consider this...

You're asked to produce some extra work and you reply with the following:

I'd love to help with that.  Realistically, I could only have it done by (insert date) because I have a lot on at the moment.  If you need it urgently, I'll have to put (x, y, z) on hold to give it the proper attention.  Will that be okay?

You have been positive; you have been pro-active; you have been realistic.  Your manager may turn around and say that it doesn't matter, that they'll get someone else to do it, and that's fine!  It's no longer your problem.  They may accept the hold on the other projects (marking, report writing, running an after-school club) because this extra work is super important. Great!  You've got the time to do it.  They may even be surprised at the amount of work you are undertaking and take some of it off of you (this has happened to me before - I nearly fainted!).  Whatever the result, you have been honest about the amount of time you have and you get to stay sane.

99% of managers out there will not think less of you for saying no to an extra task you genuinely do not have the time for.  Be honest with them and with yourself.  

I learned this very valuable lesson by reading Brian Tracy's phenomenal book: Eat That Frog!  I cannot recommend it enough.  If you ever find yourself with more tasks than time, this is the book for you.  I've mentioned my lists a couple times in this post - they are a direct result of Tracy's book.  I used to get so stressed out by my workload and now I breeze through it.  And I have learned to say no.

Thanks to everyone who has read this far!  Please continue to spread the word about my humble little blog and, as always, look after yourself.  You deserve it!

Carl Headley-Morris

@Mr_M_Musings            tragiclantern@gmail.com           bit.ly/carlslearningplace