Saying no is the best choice I have ever made for my teaching career.
I entered the teaching profession after a career in public libraries. In the beginning, I told my principal that I would probably stay late on campus since I was used to, and I quote, “working until 6 p.m. most days.” I started investigating tutoring jobs, believing that I would have the mental space to take on a daily second job.
Fast forward eight years, and I want to go back in time and hug my sweet little self and tell her to calm down. I honestly didn’t know. After winding my way through the induction program (as a teacher and as a mentor teacher), taking on leadership positions, participating in research studies, and adapting to approximately 1,054 changes in the curriculum, the bell schedule, and in teaching methods, I now know.
Adding in my personal life, including the two tiny humans who simply will not accept that Mommy needs to do four more hours of work at home, and saying no became common practice.
In the eight years that have sped by, I have discovered at least four different ways to say no, and each one of them has made me a better teacher.
When I’m working at home — though it’s incredibly challenging to avoid — I do not answer email. In fact, I never answer email when I am away from my classroom. Email quickly interrupts my personal and family time and takes an emotional toll.
At the start of each school year, I let students and parents know that I do not answer email after 3:05 p.m. or on weekends.
With these time boundaries in place, students have to wisely use their breaks during the day and their time in class with me to ask questions and share concerns. They, too, are learning time management skills. In return, I plan accordingly. I build in time during class for students to have 1:1 interaction with me during each class period, and we all win.
I say no to constant, daily piles of handwritten work or a long list of online submissions. My assignments connect to a clear instructional goal. After my first year, when I let the power get to my head, I learned that homework for the sake of homework did not benefit my students. So, I dropped it.
Prep time varies wildly from week to week. At times, I have a dependable hour each day in which to project plan, grade essays or projects, answer email, and connect with site staff. The next week, I may have student meetings, collaboration time, or scheduled time with administration across my calendar.
I start each week with a list of priorities to maintain work-life balance and I steadily work through them. I take an honest look at what I can complete at school and what needs to come home. At the start of the year, the data entry of setting up my rosters pairs perfectly with a simple movie and snacks while I type from the comfort of my couch. As the year progresses, I hit a groove and grade more efficiently in a setting free from the sounds of school, so I bring home longer-form assignments and grade while snuggled under a blanket.
My first teaching site presented a wide range of leadership opportunities, and I lept at the first few and agreed to the next several. Again, I had energy and a wealth of innocence working against me. But after eight years, I could feel that the leadership roles had become a barrier to the quality of classroom teaching I truly wanted to provide for my students.
While I enjoyed being “in the know” and liked building connections with district-level leaders, I knew that ultimately my heart was in the classroom. I decided to take a deliberate step away from leadership.
Before I experienced complete teacher burnout, I saw signs, and I tried to decrease my commitments. Pressure from administrators and the fact that I worked at a site with only a few veteran teachers meant that I took on more than I should have.
I over-extended myself even when I was feeling burnt out for a few key reasons:
I had to start saying no more often.
While many administrators come to rely on a handful of trusty staff, experienced teachers need to help school leaders recognize when newer teachers are ready for next steps. So when I started saying no, I included specific suggestions about other teachers. Gradually, the workload began to spread across the campus, making it a healthier, more engaged workplace.
We also need to address all of these high-priority tasks, clubs, trainings, and meetings with a realistic view. Yes, it’s true that if we say no then some programs may disappear or take shape in new ways. Yes, for some teachers, the guilt may sting more than others. We need to remember, though, that when teachers say no, we do not take something away from our students, we teach them about setting priorities and establishing mentally healthy lives.
My big step away from leadership led me to a new school site and to a more balanced daily routine. I already feel like a better teacher. I understand my students’ needs and use my planning time to build scaffolds for English Language Learners and find ways to challenge my advanced students — rather than create agendas for department meetings and who knows what else. My students benefit from my focused approach, and I have more time and energy for life outside of the classroom.
A few years ago, our counseling team led a staff workshop on teacher burnout. The team shared the symptoms of this condition, and I had every single one. I knew the reasons, including my mental makeup and daily demands of my personal and work life. I’d often felt my heart racing on the way to work and now I had a name for it.
While change did not come instantly, in that instant I began to change.
I knew I owed myself, my family, my friends, and my students a better version of myself.
I started the process of saying no to various commitments. I looked at my ongoing roles and thought about when each could reasonably be phased out while still honoring the promises I had made.
Then, I started saying yes.
I said yes to paddle boarding with my girlfriends — talk about the perfect metaphor for finding balance.
I said yes to the pop-up tent trailer my husband wanted to buy.
I said yes to regularly scheduled dinners with family and friends.
This year, I said yes to the feeling that pulled me to leave what had been my school home for the past eight years.
This year, I said yes to returning to the teacher I always envisioned being — the one with a clear set of priorities and the ability to truly meet students’ needs while not losing sight of my own.
All because I said no.
Sarah Knutson is a 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at River School in Napa, CA. She holds a BA in English from UC Berkeley, an MLIS from San Jose State University, and a teaching credential from UC Davis.