When teachers should say 'no' – and how to do it

Learning to say no is critical in a demanding profession like teaching, so Jamie Thom has come up with five tips on how it's done

Jamie Thom

Teacher wellbeing: How teachers can learn to say 'no'

I am lucky enough that I get the opportunity to do some coaching with teachers. A topic that often resurfaces is the struggle that some teachers have with setting boundaries and saying "no".

It is an entirely understandable reluctance: we all want to be perceived as helpful and there for others. Teachers are naturally altruistic and have that inbuilt desire to please.

Some schools, however, ruthlessly exploit that goodwill.

Teacher wellbeing: How to say no

Learning to say no is therefore integral to longevity in our demanding profession. It gives us the ability to control our time and prevents us from being overwhelmed with stress. So – how to we do it?

1. Ask for time

Don’t allow yourself to be put on the spot for an answer. Any request that demands an answer immediately is unreasonable. Always ask for time to consider before committing to something. Then be appropriately selfish: given that this is something that will demand more from us, we need to consider how it might benefit us. Taking the long view can be helpful: will you look back in the future and be glad that you did it?

Background: Big increase in teachers signed off with stress

Quick read: Survival as a teacher means learning to say 'no'

More from Jamie Thom: A brief survival guide for teachers with small children


2. Be firm and polite

If you do decide to say no, always express this politely and clearly, and be clear about your reasons why you can’t commit. It can be helpful to express a degree of gratitude for being asked to do something, before going on to elaborate on why it might not be possible. Some useful phrases: “I really appreciate being asked but…”, “I’m sorry, I can’t commit to this because…”

3. 'I have a rule…'

This golden phrase has worked particularly well for me. People tend to understand and respect the idea that we set rules for ourselves, and that can help us to gently say no to something that comes up. One of my rules relates to being able to pick up my sons from childcare: “I’m sorry, I have a rule that I am back in time to pick up my wee boy."

4. Be proactive

A good approach is to be proactive in seeking out additional projects or events that you do want to be involved in. For me that involves sharing my passion for writing and running by starting up lunchtime clubs. Taking this approach gives us that sense of being in control of how and what we want to spend our time doing. As a teacher, being part of the wider school community helps immeasurably – deciding how and when we do it can be very empowering.

5. Honesty

The more we accept the things that pile pressure on teachers, the more teachers will burn out and leave the profession. Saying no and pushing back requires a degree of courage, but being honest, as teachers, about the amount of time we are spending on things is so important.

So, as the nights start to draw in and our tiredness levels start to creep up, our next pedagogical focus in school should perhaps be experimenting with ways to politely but firmly say that most unequivocal of words: “no.”

Jamie Thom is a teacher of English and an author, based in Scotland. He tweets @teachgratitude1 and his latest book is Teacher Resilience: Managing stress and anxiety to thrive in the classroom

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories