School Culture and the Permission To Say No

Those who marvel at or question the vacations teachers enjoy are unlikely to have experienced the energy drain that the profession involves. There are inevitably other professions that demand emotional commitment with life-changing implications, but the nature of teaching is such that those in the trenches tend to expend everything they have from break to break. Education as a profession, for those who care deeply, can be all-consuming.

Recently, conscious of the tiredness of those around me and myself, I declined to participate in a new project. Like many, this is something I struggle to do. We do our best to encourage teachers to slow down and breathe. Sometimes the best meeting in terms of positive impact on learning is a cancelled meeting. My colleagues are incredibly dedicated and, often, the next good idea or activity comes from them. Still, they need the permission to say no, the professional and personal freedom not to add that next layer of complexity or demand on their already limited energies.

But teachers are very reluctant to say no. It’s a word one rarely hears in education. People are afraid to say no because they fear this will be interpreted as a lack of commitment, a refusal to support the team, a dismissal of or disinterest in a worthy project. Organizations unwittingly design methods of seeking agreement to join new initiatives in ways that contribute to a culture of acquiescence. Schools model this and reveal this compulsion to students who observe an unhealthy tendency to press people into participation even after they have tried their best to say no. Then we wonder about levels of engagement.

In recent days I have dealt with several incidents that involved students making poor choices. We manage our way through these situations by noting that spring has arrived, that kids will be kids, but the reality is often that students are exhausted. Teachers will tell you that most discipline problems happen in the days before a break. School terms are typically always at least a week too long. This is not to justify those choices, but we have an obligation to understand them. Faced with contrite tears this week, I sought to understand why certain foolish decisions were made. A common refrain disturbed me: an inability to say no. Echols has a perceptive take on this phenomenon: “The saying goes that maturity is learning to say “No” without feeling obligated to offer an excuse… There are so many reasons we feel obligated to continue forward with something, or someone, even though we know it doesn’t feel right. Maybe it is a desire to be polite, or not wanting to feel like you’ve given up or not given your best effort.”

Gleason reminds us that we are responsible for the cultures that we create. I pride myself in working in an exceptional school in which we typically enjoy a culture of open dialogue and consideration for the wellbeing of each other. Yet one sometimes senses that schools struggle to activate wellbeing, rather than simply talk about it. While we sense that the pace of life seems faster than ever, this is then used as a justification for doing more. As Kreider notes: “The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.”

Working in education is an incredible privilege. There are things we are all obligated to do and change initiatives we must engage with so that we can do what is best for learners. Hopefully those initiatives will make the work more meaningful or impactful for all. But we must do more to promote the right of individuals to say no when doing more will compromise the quality of their genuine commitment to their students. Like the stigma that has historically been associated with mental health, we must promote an open culture of articulating our limited capacity to do more without a fear of admonishment or disappointment. No means no. It doesn’t designate a lack of care or commitment. Quite often, in fact, it can mean the very opposite.

Echols, Tonya. “The Permission to Say No.” HuffPost, October 20, 2016.
Kreider, Tim. “The Busy Trap.” The New York Times, June 30, 2012.

Image Credit: Photo by Karen Lau on Unsplash