NQT Special: Do you know how and when to say no?

Both NQTs and more experienced teachers can often find it difficult to say no. Julian Stanley explores how teachers can turn down additional requests on their time in a professional manner.

Qualifying as a teacher is a uniquely exciting and terrifying time. There is the freedom to begin the career that you have been working so hard for, but you are suddenly on your own, fully responsible for a class, often without the support and back-up you have been accustomed to during training.

You are also probably wanting to impress your employer and colleagues, and so you are saying yes to everything asked of you, while trying to manage a complex workload.

Many of the NQTs we speak to say that they feel uncomfortable saying no because they do not want to disappoint others, they have had negative experiences saying no in the past, or they don’t want to be viewed as uncooperative, particularly as they begin to find their own place within a school.

We asked the counsellors on the Teacher Support Network helpline how young teachers can know when and how it is okay to say no. In 2013 and 2014, nearly 500 teachers called us to say that they were struggling with the ability to say no – and it certainly is not just NQTs that find it difficult.

However, setting realistic expectations has benefits for everyone – even when that expectation is a definitive no. 

For the person who is promising more than they can deliver, it can help restore or preserve their professional integrity. Who wants to be known as the person within an organisation who always over-promises and under-delivers? 

Setting realistic expectations will also benefit your wellbeing by reducing stress and anxiety. Even the person whose request is refused may benefit. That person knows immediately to seek other resources or to reset expectations themselves (with parents, colleagues, etc).

Preparing to say no

So, what do NQTs find difficult to say no to? Teachers often cite requests or implications to spend more time at work, such as taking on extra responsibilities, requests to cover shifts, implied requests to work whatever hours are needed to get the job done (regardless if you are up very late at night and/or working weekends), or being asked to attend meetings when they have no childcare (and no family who can help).

It is important that if you are feeling over-committed, you let the person asking something from you know what you are reasonably able to do for them and remind of what you are already doing (such as after-school clubs and so on).

Effective communication is imperative when dealing with colleagues, management and parents. It is important to first understand what your job duties entail, then set realistic expectations of what you can and cannot do. Don’t agree to do something that you know will cause you undue stress or physical effort. 

Also think about how you can negotiate what you are being asked to do and try to offer alternative options to the person asking you to do something. For example, would you feel more able to do the task if you were not doing it alone? Rather than say no, can you ask if there is someone they could recommend to work with on a task? Other alternatives to no might include:

  • "Thank you for considering me for this. Let me check my diary before I commit.”
  • “I appreciate you asking me. I’m going to take time to fully consider this. I will respond to you when I have an update.”
  • “I have to admit that I disagree with that decision. Can we find some time to talk through some things that concern me?”
  • “Who else have you considered for that task, role or responsibility?”

Uncomfortable situations

What can you do to prepare yourself for an uncomfortable situation? First, try to demonstrate positive communication skills: there are many resources available to assist you in improving your communication skills, but here are some basics:

  • Be aware of your body language: maintain eye contact and a neutral posture.
  • Avoid showing anger or disdain in your body language, tone or words.
  • Paraphrase statements made by others to confirm your understanding of their request.

Teachers are also encouraged to engage in positive self-talk. Everybody has their own narrative running in their head. Pause, listen and remind yourself of the value of your own skill-set, experience, education and successes. It might help to document your thoughts, feelings and ideas, to remind yourself of why you are making the decision that you are making.

Visualise how you will react if a particular objectionable request is made. If possible, write out and practise some responses. Take deep breaths, practise stating your mantra or personal affirmation statement, and use “I” statements. Here is an example: “I feel unvalued when you ask me to cover with less than one day’s notice and no extra time to complete my regular duties.”

Confronting any sort of objection or conflict is never easy – so practising will make it easier. Role-play with a friend, family member or colleague outside of work, so you can become confident saying no in a respectful yet assertive way. Discuss your concerns with a colleague or mentor to assist you if that would be helpful.

Setting goals so you can say no

An easy rule of thumb is this: “Saying no to something allows me to say yes to something else.”

It is all about balance. Remember that there are only 24 hours in each day. Budget your time and strategically decide how much time to spend on this, that or the other. Here is an example:

  • Everyone needs between seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
  • The average teacher is physically present at the school for around eight to nine hours daily, then spends another several hours at home working on lessons, marking papers and so forth.
  • Factor in the need for positive self-care: time with family and time with friends.

When you visually add up your day in this way, you may realise that there really isn’t a lot of “leftover time” to take on additional responsibilities. In other words – when there is £0 left in the budget, there is truly nothing left to give. Knowing that ahead of time is a great way to freely say no.

Prioritise. Write down a list of items that you “have to” do, and rank in importance with “I will literally be fired if I don’t get this done” as the most important item. Then work down from there, to the “least important” item. You are human, not a robot, and there are some items you might not get to.

Focus on what you can control – even if it is very small: the order of the lesson, the layout of your desk, deciding what time you’ll start marking, and so on.

Some final tips

  • Remember that you’re saying no to X so that you can be better at Y and Z. If all else fails, don’t say no, say something like “I can’t right now and I’ll let you know if anything changes”.
  • Remember that others are under stress and pressure as well. Be kind.
  • Familiarise yourself with the process at your school – what things can you be more flexible on and what other things need to be answered immediately – and say no based on procedure or need.
  • Your colleagues and senior managers have their own lives and their own issues, and are not likely as focused on you as you think.
  • Having a good perspective of the “big picture” can be tremendously helpful – schools in the UK are under significant pressure to prove themselves and to show improvement. Try not to take it personally. The schools are looking at all facets of the system in order to improve, not a specific teacher or department.

How we can help

  • Help for individuals  
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, an Ofsted inspection, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That’s why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Help for organisations 
    Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone’s wellbeing.