A More Effective Way for Teachers to Say No

no

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For many reasons, a lot of teachers have a hard time saying no. People who go into teaching want to help others. We often satisfy others’ needs over our own. Many teachers were good students, which often means they were rule followers. Many of us tend to be conformists. When we see other teachers joining committees, we have a difficult time saying no. We also know our schools are strapped for cash, so we agree to work for free, knowing there just aren’t enough people to do everything that needs to be done. We don’t like disappointing others. We fear what will happen if we don’t say yes. We don’t want to be perceived as lazy. Knowing this, some administrators lay on guilt trips and appeal to our selfless natures. It’s for the kids, they remind us.

No matter the reason, many teachers end up agreeing to join committees, attend after-school parent nights, tutor students before class, organize book rooms or science materials, or agree to be their school’s union representative even though they don’t really want to.

They recognize that there are trade-offs. By stretching themselves thin, they’re unable to do anything as well as they would like. They become less prepared teachers, which leads to less effective teaching, which leads to greater stress, more exhaustion, and a higher likelihood of burning out and quitting. Having said yes to every request, they look around one day and wonder where all their time went. How come they can’t get anything done? Why are they so tired all the time?

It’s important for teachers to say no. Teachers need to say no a whole lot more often than they do. But how do you say no respectfully, yet firmly? How do you say no in a way that will lead others to respect you instead of question your dedication, collegiality, and work ethic?

I have found that the best way to say no starts with two little words: I don’t.

I Can’t

Many people, when they say no, start with, “I can’t.” They then give reasons explaining why they can’t.

“I can’t be on that committee because it meets at 7:00, and I can’t get to work until 7:30.”

“I can’t work on that report because I just don’t know enough about what was done.”

“I can’t chaperone that dance because it’s the same night as my son’s football game.”

The problem with “I can’t” is that circumstances can change. The meetings can be moved to after school. You’ll be given the information you need to write the report. You can’t work this dance, but you can work the one in the spring when it’s no longer football season. “I can’t” says to the person requesting your involvement that, while you can’t do this thing this time, you might be able to do it next time. It invites future requests for your time. If you really don’t want to do the thing, it demands that you create even more explanations for why you can’t. And when you always have a reason for getting out of things, it looks like you’re making up excuses. People don’t respect that.

Instead of saying, “I can’t,” start saying, “I don’t.”

I Don’t

When teachers say, “I don’t,” they send the message that they are in control of their lives. They have rules for how they live. They know what they want. They’re committed. “I don’t” is non-negotiable. It establishes boundaries, instead of just providing what could be perceived as an excuse to get out of doing extra work.

“I don’t” is rare, and that is why it will lead to more respect. Most people don’t really know what they want. They don’t take principled stands. They fail to proactively control their lives. They’re like driftwood, caught up in a current, tossed this way and that by circumstance, instead of captains of their own vessels, intentionally navigating their lives toward predetermined destinations. People respect those who know what they want.

The next time you’re asked to do unpaid work, say, “I’m a professional, and I don’t work for free.”

When asked to join a paid committee you have no interest in, say, “I don’t take on projects that have the potential to diminish my effectiveness in the classroom.”

You might even develop a mantra for any opportunity that doesn’t appeal to you: “I don’t do things that don’t further my goals or excite me.”

“I don’t” works for establishing boundaries in all areas of your life. Once you use it to say no, move on to letting others know what you will and won’t do.

“I don’t read work emails on Sundays.”
“I don’t come into the classroom on weekends.”
“I don’t allow toys in my classroom.”

Making these two little words a part of your lexicon will head off future requests for your time. They will force you to decide what kinds of things you will and won’t do. They will require you to analyze your own goals and priorities. And they will result in more respect from others. Try it out this week, and let me know how it goes in the comments.

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Related:

The Expectation of Free Work

How Teachers Can Get Paid for Extra Work

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

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We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

“We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

–The Who

I was talking with a teacher who has a new principal this year. Her new boss is going to turn things around. He’s going to fix what’s broken. It’s a familiar story.

When I started my teaching career, I went to six nights of training in Balanced Literacy. It was the Next Big Thing.

In my fourth year of teaching my district adopted a new math program that had been designed by some very impressive people in Chicago with PhD after their names. The program “spiraled,” and we were told this would raise those stubbornly middling math scores.

When large corporations started using SMART Goals, schools couldn’t wait to jump on board. If businesses were using them, they must be good!

Robert Marzano extolled the benefits of making your learning goals known to students, so it wasn’t long before schools started requiring “I Can” statements to be posted at the front of the room. This, we were told, was going to lead to greater student achievement.

Got behavior problems in your school? PBIS to the rescue!

Having a hard time differentiating? You need one-to-one devices!

Reading scores too low? This program sold by this huge publisher is bound to raise them!

Tired of achievement gaps and mediocre scores on international tests? Raise the bar! Tougher standards! Higher expectations! 100% proficiency goals! That will do the trick!

Once you’ve done this job for a few years, you start to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. You’ve seen this script before, and you don’t particularly like the ending. Or the middle. Or that damn song that wakes you up each morning.

Don’t Believe the Hype

I have no problem with new programs. I recognize that change is inevitable and that schools should constantly strive to improve. As someone who writes his own books, I don’t resent the peddlers of new initiatives for repackaging some stale idea and trying to make a buck for themselves. Most teachers I know are willing to give new things a go. We know our schools and classrooms are far from perfect, and we’re constantly on the lookout for solutions.

But many administrators, in their desire to convince their staffs to buy in on the latest and greatest fads, go five steps too far. They promise too much, selling one magic bullet after another, as though teachers have a peculiar form of amnesia that wipes their memories clear of previous flops and lackluster results. Like the Super Bowl, the real thing hardly ever lives up to the hype.

We Don’t Believe in Miracles

Schools face complex issues. At best, problems can be mitigated. Success in most instances would be moderate, incremental improvement. But no one wants to hear that. So principals and other leaders zealously pitch their new ideas alongside the unspoken question made famous by Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles?”

No. No, we don’t. We don’t believe in your magic bullets. Because if magic bullets actually existed, we would have discovered them by now. We would already be using them.

The overselling of new initiatives isn’t just harmless zeal. We shouldn’t simply forgive those who promise the moon when there is no moon to be had. Failures shouldn’t be dismissed as the folly of an overeager instructional leader. Nor should the responsibility for such failures be left to fall on the shoulders of those who implemented them.  The damage is in the original lie, not the execution.

Every time some earnest and enthusiastic administrator tells his teachers that this new thing is going to be the cure-all we all so desperately want and it then inevitably fails to be such, that administrator loses credibility. Do it once and teachers might forgive him. Do it twice and staff begins to wonder. Do it three times and he better expect some serious skepticism and pushback. As George W. Bush famously said, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Nobody likes to feel gullible.

The Genesis of Cynicism

It is this baseless conviction in the potential of new things that acts as an incubation chamber for the cynicism veteran teachers are often accused of. It’s not that those teachers are negative and unwilling to try new ideas; it’s that they’ve been there and done that, and like The Who, they have decided that they won’t get fooled again. Their cynicism is hard-earned.

There’s a simple solution for principals looking to implement new programs. It isn’t sexy. Honesty rarely is. But the next time you want to try something you read about–the next time you want to hop on the latest bandwagon–don’t lie to your teachers. Don’t blow smoke up their hindquarters. Admit the truth: You don’t know if it will work. Concede that you cannot guarantee a solution to the problem. Acknowledge past promises and the uphill climb you face to gain your teachers’ trust. Make it clear that because what’s being done isn’t working, you’re going to try something else. Be up-front. Stop pretending you’ve loaded your gun with a magic bullet, when it looks the same as all the other ones teachers have seen slid into the chamber.

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I left out about a 100 magic bullets. Share yours in the comments!

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Other Stuff Worth Reading:

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Teach Like a Cat

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents

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Your Messy Classroom is a Problem

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Are you one of those teachers who never throws things out? Is your closet stuffed to the gills with art supplies, science kits for topics no longer in your curriculum, and student projects from 1998? Do you have multiple filing cabinets filled with worksheets that haven’t seen daylight since the Bush administration, totes containing manipulatives you’d be surprised to learn you own, and a box of confiscated toys that lost their popularity five years ago? If so, you may be making your job and the job of your students harder.

We hold onto things for lots of reasons, and the more committed emotionally or financially we are to an item, the more we want to keep it. We might hold onto a box of old road maps because we have fond memories of using them to teach scale. We refuse to get rid of The Mailbox magazines because there are good ideas in them (never mind we haven’t opened one in a decade and all those ideas are on the Internet, taking up no physical space at all). We wrote and won a grant that we used to purchase keyboards for iPads, and even though the iPads have been replaced with Chromebooks we can’t bring ourselves to get rid of the keyboards.

One reason we don’t like to purge is that we may have made a mistake when we purchased or accepted the items in the first place. It’s painful to admit we’re wrong. Science has found that our brains react to the loss of a valued possession the same way they respond to physical pain. But although it might hurt, clearing out some of your crap will help you and your students.

Neuroscientists at Princeton University found that subjects in a disorganized environment had a harder time maintaining attention than those working in an organized environment. The study showed that physical clutter competes for our attention, resulting in poorer performance and increased stress. You and your students will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better in an uncluttered classroom.

The cleanliness of your room can also impact students’ behavior. A study conducted in 2006 by the University of Sussex took an in-depth look at over 100 English families with small children. Researchers found a clear link between cleanliness and order, and well-behaved children.

Like other teacher characteristics that harm student learning, we shouldn’t excuse a teacher’s messy classroom as a personality quirk. We don’t look the other way when teachers are unable to give clear directions because they’re scatter-brained. If we agree that students learn more from people they like than those they don’t, we shouldn’t permit teachers to be jerks. A teacher who’s a bully doesn’t get a free pass just because he experienced rejection as a child and has low self-esteem. Messy classrooms are a hindrance to student learning, and teachers should be encouraged to clean them up.

If you’ve got too much stuff, take these four steps to conquer your clutter:

Yearly Cleaning

Near the end of each year clean out your closets, filing cabinets, and desk. Do it while school in still in session. Many students like to help. Plus, it’s free labor. Your district isn’t going to pay you to de-clutter over the summer, and you shouldn’t work for free, especially when the work you’re doing will benefit your students. Get rid of anything you haven’t used in two years. Toss it, sell it, or give it away. I’ve never once went looking for something after this length of time.

Set Limits

Set limits. Don’t exceed them. Allow yourself three totes for science materials. Don’t buy any more bookcases. Get rid of a filing cabinet. When the totes, bookcases, and filing cabinets are full, you’ll be forced to get rid of something to make room for something new. Setting limits is like establishing a spending budget; when you hit the magic number, you’re done.

Cut Space

Force yourself to live within new constraints.  If you’ve got 12 boxes of stuff in your room, cut them down to six. You can do the same for digital clutter. Limit the number of emails in your inbox to 100. Limit the amount of Google Drive folders to 25. Limit the amount of files in each folder to 50. Learn to live within new limits and you’ll be forced to carefully monitor your stuff.

Would You Buy It?

Finally, if you can’t decide whether to keep or trash an item, ask yourself this question: “If I didn’t already own this and I saw it in a store today, would I be willing to buy it?” If the answer is no — and it usually will be– then get rid of it.

What about you? Are there strategies you’ve used to stay on top of clutter and keep your classroom organized? Let us know in the comments.

One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

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Every teacher I know would like to take less work home. It’s a worthy goal, and part of accomplishing it is finding ways to grade papers during the school day. There are obvious times like planning periods, recess, or, if you’re really dedicated and/or desperate, lunch. But I like to use those times for other responsibilities (in the case of lunch, to eat). That leaves grading while students are in the room.

Many teachers never grade papers in their students’ presence. With only so many hours in a school year to make a difference, they feel like when students are in the room they need to be actively engaged with them. They must be instructing, or working with small groups, monitoring, or mentoring. After all, they reason, so many kids need so much, how can they justify grading papers?

They also worry about what others will think. What if the principal walks in and finds them at their desks checking math tests? What if the reading specialist comes in to work with at-risk readers? Will she look down her nose or think the teacher lazy or lacking in dedication?

And there’s the guilt many teachers seem to carry around like a free tote bag at a reading conference. Guilt comes from violating our own beliefs. Since most teachers believe they should do everything they can to help students, taking time out of the day to score student work just doesn’t feel right.

But if you want to reclaim your personal life and stop taking so much work home, you’ll need to carve out time while students are in the room to grade papers. How can you do this in an educationally sound way that’s scientifically proven to benefit kids? Simple:

Give your students breaks.

Transitions Are Stupid, Breaks Are Not

I started giving my third graders five-minute breaks because I hate managing transitions. Conventional classroom management wisdom says that teachers should train students to execute transitions between subjects with crisp, quiet efficiency to maximize every minute of the day. Teachers are warned that sloppy transitions lead to misbehavior and wasted time.

But I always hated demanding these kinds of transitions. They made me feel like a drill sergeant. And I couldn’t help notice that with the exception of the military, adults rarely transition seamlessly from one activity to another. When I finish this blog post, I won’t immediately start planning next week’s lessons. I’ll watch football, or check Twitter, or eat Cheetos.

So instead of quickly switching from one subject to the next, I give my students five-minute breaks. Students can play games on their Chromebooks, read, draw, or just hang out and talk. I let them know when time is running out and count down so they’re back in their seats and ready when the five minutes are up.

Science Agrees: Breaks Are Good

Breaks are good for everybody. They allow us to recharge, adjust our moods, engage with others, laugh, stretch, and refocus. Science backs it up. A 2011 University of Illinois study showed that participants who experienced diversions once per hour did better at a task than those who plowed ahead with no breaks.

Breaks also help with student behavior. Because my students know I’m going to give them choice time on their Chromebooks a few times each day, they’re less likely to sneak onto a game site during work time.

Breaks can also help students get over frustration. One morning I was picking student jobs for our class lemonade stand. One student got upset because he wasn’t selected. If we would have moved directly into more academic work, his negative attitude would have led to a lack of attention during the lesson and a poor effort on the assignment. Instead, we took a five-minute break. I could almost see his thinking: He could sit there and stew and lose the five minutes of free time, or he could do something fun. He chose to play a game, and by the time we resumed, he had forgotten all about his disappointment over the lemonade stand.

Breaks also help me. They free me up to do some of the work I used to take home. While I sometimes use the time to get ready for the next subject, I’ve also used break time to work on my newsletter to parents, write sub plans, and check student papers. Throughout the course of the day, my students usually get three or four breaks, which means I get 15-20 minutes of work time. And it’s not as if I’m checking Facebook. Communicating with parents, writing sub plans, and grading papers are part of my job. I should do them while I’m being paid.

For Your Critics

There are teachers and administrators who will read the above and cringe at the “lost instructional time.” They’re hypocrites, and should the need arise, you can prove it to them.

The next time you attend a long professional development session with one of your critics and the presenter announces a break, interrupt her and ask if the break can be skipped. While everyone stares daggers at you, explain that you value your learning time too much to take a break. Tell her you don’t want to waste a single minute.

See how that goes over with your critics.

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Related:

Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary If You’re Working For Free

How Teachers Should Respond to Guilt Trips

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

 

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Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

go home

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There is one thing every teacher can and should do if they want to be less tired and use their time at work more efficiently:

Quit working shortly after the kids have left. Go home.

There are many reasons teachers stay late at school. Some feel a sense of pride at being one of the last to leave. They believe their late nights reflect greater dedication to their students. They enjoy their reputation as a hard worker. Others feel guilty when they leave quickly. They keep working out of a misguided sense of obligation. They worry what others will think of them, fearing they’ll be thought of as lazy and apathetic. Many teachers act as if they have no choice in the matter. They’re on committees, run after-school clubs, or just have so much to do that they have to stay after work to get it done.

No matter the reason, all believe that staying late after school makes them a better teacher. But they are wrong.

Quitting, for lack of a better word, is good.

Quit for Your Health

I was jogging the other day when my back started to hurt. I tried to keep going, but it got worse. So I quit running and my back instantly felt better.

Restaurants have gone crazy with the size of their nachos.

I mean, will you look at this thing?

I get full about halfway through. So I quit eating them.

Smart people quit when their body tells them to. No one feels bad about it. But when it comes to work, we suddenly start believing we’re Superman and that no matter how tired we are we can and should just keep going.

Teaching is a unique job. One of the reasons it’s so exhausting is that we have to be on all day. To do the job properly, you need to be well-rested. You need to be enthusiastic and observant. Going home will help.

No matter when I get home, I want to maximize the time I have for myself.  On nights when I’m home by five o’clock, I’ve got six hours to do whatever I want. That’s a nice balance. Ten hours for preparing for work, commuting, and working, six for my personal life, and eight hours of sleep. Because I value my personal time, any day I get home late leads to a late night and a lack of sleep.

Getting home earlier also means you can eat earlier. Your body will have longer to digest dinner before you go to bed, and eating early gives the food enough time to settle so you can exercise without discomfort.

Quit to Be a Better Teacher

A lot of teachers stay after school because they have work to do, but they’ve chosen the worst possible time to get it done. By the end of the day your willpower is exhausted. Willpower is limited, and once it’s gone only eating and sleep can restore it. Willpower is what you need to make yourself check papers, read essays, plan lessons, and respond tactfully to emails. A lack of willpower means your after-school efforts are going to be inefficient. You’ll be more easily distracted, more tempted to check Facebook or gossip with colleagues, and more likely to head to the lounge to eat whatever you can find because your body needs fuel.

Parkinson’s Law is also working against you. It states that work will expand to fill the available time. I wrote and published my first two books, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss and Happy Teacher in two months each. I was able to do that because that’s how long I gave myself to complete them. Because of the topic of my next book, I planned an October release. I started working on it in May. The book is taking me longer because I gave myself more time to do it, so many days I don’t write much and on some days I don’t work on it at all (I write long blog posts like this one instead).

This is Parkinson’s Law at work, and it will strike you as you sit at your desk after school. Instead of working until you complete a certain amount of work, give yourself 30 minutes. You’ll be more focused, your work will be of better quality, you’ll cut out any distractions or cute but unnecessary extras, and you’ll get it finished. Give yourself less time, and you’ll get more done.

Quit to Be a Better Person

Psychologists discovered something they call the morning morality effect. Basically, you’re a better person in the morning. Your body needs glucose for pretty much everything, including willpower and decision-making. Since teachers expend a lot of willpower and make a ton of decisions, we burn through glucose pretty fast. When it runs out we’re tired, cranky, impatient, have stronger cravings for sweets and other junk food, and we experience stronger emotions. All of which lead to bad decisions. The morning morality effect explains why you’re more likely to ruin your diet at night than in the morning, and why people are more likely to commit immoral acts like lying, cheating, and stealing in the afternoon. School is not a place you want to be when you’re more likely to make bad decisions. Go home.

Quit Because Science Says To

Many teachers reading this will still stay after school because they believe it’s the only way to be effective at their jobs. They’ve fallen victim to the culture of overwork. So a fair question to ask is:  Do longer hours make you more productive?

The research is clear. More work doesn’t equal more output. In one study, managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who worked 80-hour weeks and those who just pretended to (which actually sounds worse). Numerous studies have shown that overwork leads to stress that causes health issues, sleep deprivation, depression, heart disease, memory loss, and greater alcoholic intake. Researchers have also found that working too much impairs your abilities to communicate, make judgments, read others’ nonverbal language, and modulate your emotions.

Also, your cat will miss you.

So go home. Eat dinner. Hit the gym. Kiss your spouse. Watch Netflix. Play Uno with your kids. Leave work at work. Detach. Live your life. And when you’re tempted to choose more work over all those things, remember this Arianna Huffington quote:

“Have you noticed that when we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives very differently from the way society defines success?”

You can read more here: Stop Working More Than 40 Hours a Week.

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Related Content:

Why American Teachers Should Work Less

Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary If You’re Working for Free

Why Teachers Are So Tired

 

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