The power of 'no': 5 times when it's the only answer

Ruth Luzmore explains how she came to realise the power that a polite but firm 'no' can have, and the benefits it delivers

The power of no

My three-year-old niece has perfected the art of the perfect "no".  She turns towards you, gives you the unblinking eyes, and says a short, quiet "no", before walking off.

It’s a powerful thing to witness.

It has been making me think about how a self-assured "no" might be used to best effect by adults in the classroom and around school. 

1. When you are asked to ignore school rules

If you are asked to allow special treatment – a pupil asks for something that pushes the boundaries of school policy, for example – and you worry it could set an uncomfortable precedent or invite accusations of preferential treatment, a simple "no" removes any of those concerns or after-effects.

2. Parents requesting more homework

What about if you are asked to set additional homework by parents? This one might be a bit controversial as it is fantastic that they are interested in pushing their child's learning.  

But in fact, setting extra homework means you have to plan and mark it. Even if you are happy to have the extra workload, the teacher that follows you will not thank you.

Perhaps better to use a polite "no" and instead suggest places they can access additional learning independently for their child.

3. Daily communication logs (sometimes)

This is a trickier one, perhaps, as I don’t think this is always a "no", but being asked to put together daily communications logs is something that needs to be thought through with your Sendco. 

While one or possibly two daily logs might be manageable, be wary of overburdening yourself in a class of 30 with promises about parental communication that may not be practical.

If you do think it is worth it, do not leave it open-ended and set up a review date. Sometimes it is clear that these logs are not being read.

4. When parents complain without merit

What if things are more serious – such as when an adult makes a false statement or accusation about a member of staff or another child? 

Listening to concerns here is important, of course, but so is actively and politely disagreeing if that is the right thing to do.

"No, that is not what happened" or "No, that is an unfair description of X" makes it clear exactly where you stand on the matter. 

From experience, this is one of the most challenging parts of the job, and silence here can be seen as a tacit agreement with the parent's opinions, which can cause many issues.

5. When asked to do extra work

Additional work within an unreasonable time limit? This is a challenging one, and perhaps one of the most common.

It might be that you don't respond with the word "no" here, but instead proactively raise your concerns about not getting it done in time or to the standard that would be required for the extra work to have been worthwhile.

Talk through your priorities and other deadlines you have on at the moment.

The use of the word "no" does not have to be rude or aggressive – as my niece demonstrates.

It is actually a reasonable way of ensuring our wellbeing and effectiveness in our profession. 

Ruth Luzmore is head of St Mary Magdalene Academy in London

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