Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 3: Say No

teacher burnout

In part one of this series, I discussed why it is that teachers fail to protect themselves from burnout, even though high numbers of teachers report being stressed, exhausted, and disengaged at work.

In part two, I previewed the strategies I use to work 40 hours per week. I also talked about the importance of having a plan if you’re serious about cutting your own hours back.

Today, I’ll share my number one strategy for working fewer hours. Like many solutions, it’s simple but powerful.

Say no.

Many people have a hard time saying no. They have good reasons. We’re social creatures who are wired to cooperate. Society reinforces this biological urge to get along. No feels negative. Saying it disappoints other people. Pop culture contributes with messages about having no regrets, being a doer, and squeezing every drop out of life. For a lot of people, just the thought of telling someone no makes them uncomfortable. They agree to every request and then wonder why they’re stressed out and tired all the time.

Teaching is hard. Putting more on your plate makes it harder. The easiest way to lower your stress, which will make it less likely you will burn out somewhere down the line, is to do less work in such a stressful environment.

First, you have to give yourself permission to say no.  That requires a shift in mindset. No feels bad. It’s by definition a negative word. It means letting others down. It’s these negative thoughts and associated fears that lead people to say yes when they don’t want to.

Instead, think of it this way: When you say no, you are also saying yes.

  • When you say no to joining a committee, you are saying yes to having more time to prepare high-quality lessons or provide students with valuable feedback.
  • When you say no to attending an after-school night, you’re saying yes to your own family, your own interests, and your own energy levels, which will, over time, lengthen your career.
  • When you say no to solving another teacher’s problem for them, you’re saying yes to empowering that teacher to solve the problem herself.
  • When you say no to things that don’t impact your students, you are saying yes to things that do.

When you say no, you say yes to the opportunity to say yes to other things.

That’s because every decision you make has trade-offs. Saying no simply means you’re acknowledging this fact.  You can’t do everything and you shouldn’t try. Do a few important things, and do them well. If you do, you’ll be in excellent company.

Warren Buffett said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

Steve Jobs: People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

Seth Godin: “Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

Paulo Coelho: “When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.”

Meghan Trainor: “Nah to the ah to the no, no, no.”

Even Jesus said no. 

Many teachers will claim that they don’t have a choice. They have mandatory meetings to attend. They are contractually obligated to chaperone a dance, or three sporting events, or attend graduation. Some claim that even though certain work isn’t technically mandatory, it’s strongly encouraged.

All of that may be true. I, too, have meetings I must attend, parent-teacher conferences to run after school hours, and an open house every fall.

But there are a number of opportunities that teachers accept when they shouldn’t. When teachers say they “have to,” they often mean that the repercussions of not saying yes are uncomfortable. Or, more likely, the fear of such repercussions is uncomfortable. Elaine St. James, in her book, Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More, says:

“There are often many things we feel we should do that, in fact, we don’t really have to do. Getting to the point where we can tell the difference is a major milestone in the simplification process.”

And simplifying your job will help you cut hours off it.

An entire book could be written on why and how teachers should say no (in fact, I’m writing one), so for this article, I’ll stick to knowing when to say yes and when to say no. It’s actually very easy.

Say yes to opportunities that:

  1. Excite you
  2. Further your goals

Tim Ferriss goes so far as to say, “If it’s not a hell, yeah, it’s a no.” Saying yes to only those things that excite you or that further your goals is a way of prioritizing, and all teachers must do more of it. We simply can’t do everything, so we must choose.

Let’s practice:

Would you like to join the March is Reading Month Committee?

Say yes if the idea of meeting with others to design fun activities around reading is exciting to you or if you think that joining such a committee will further one of your goals. If you feel like you should, or if you’re worried what others will think if you don’t, or if you haven’t joined a committee this year but you know Joyce is on three so you probably ought to and this one doesn’t sound so bad …say no.

I’ve really been impressed with how you use technology in your classroom. Would you mind sharing some of those ideas with the staff?

Your body does this thing when it’s presented with an offer. It is either immediately excited or it wants to get the hell out of there as fast as it can. Listen to your body. If the very mention of an opportunity gets you excited, then say yes. If you love technology and like sharing ideas with others, then this one is a no-brainer. If you love technology but the thought of presenting to your colleagues creates a pit in your stomach, say no (and maybe offer to make a video or send out links to the stuff you do). If the idea of spending time on any of it makes you instantly resentful — if you immediately start figuring out when in the world you’ll find time to pull it all together — then say no. It’s not a priority right now and other stuff is.

Remember, saying no means saying yes. What could you do with the time you would have spent on this committee or doing that presentation or attending that event? The reverse is also true: Saying yes is saying no. So if you’re a teacher who just can’t stomach the thought of telling people no, consider this: every time you say yes to something, you are also saying no to lots of other things. Saying yes to donating your time over here means you don’t get to use that time over there.

If you’re a teacher who always says yes, then when you return to work after the break, say no to something. Say no to anything. Don’t apologize. Don’t give excuses. As Susan Gregg says, “No is a complete sentence and so often we forget that.” No is empowering. Try it. You might like it.

If you want more ideas on how to prioritize, check out Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Over the course of a calendar year, she’ll give you tips in the areas of lesson planning, grading papers, communicating with parents, establishing routines, and many others, all with the aim of helping you cut hours from your typical workweek. It’s great stuff, which is why Teacher Habits is an affiliate partner and all links to the club are affiliate links.

If you want to read more about prioritizing, acknowledging trade-offs, and the importance of saying no so you can focus on your greatest contribution, check out Greg McKeown’s excellent book, Essentialism. It will change how you think about no.

All of the articles in this series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves

Part 2: Making a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time


I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

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