Teacher Wellness
January 31, 2022

The Liberating Joy Of Saying "NO"

This short blog post started off as a Twitter thread that I wrote in the summer.


For a variety of reasons, many teachers have a hard time saying "no". We have this weird relationship with the word that makes a lot of us uncomfortable when it comes to using it.

However, being unable to say "no" can lead to unhealthy situations in which educators feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and incapable of making progress towards their own goals. When we let that go on for too long, it can result in teacher burnout (something that I would never wish on anyone).

Here's the thing: getting better at saying "no" is just like any other skill: it gets easier through deliberate practice.

To help you with this, here are some tips and tactics (many of which I have written for myself here) that you can use to master the art of saying "no":

1️⃣ Know your "why" when it comes to "no".

Saying "no" to something means saying "yes" to something else (and the same goes for the opposite.)

Knowing this, sit down and get some clarity on what is truly important to you. What are the things that you value and would not have to say "no" to? For me, it would be spending time with my family or getting to focus on the projects that I am passionate about.

The next time you find yourself facing a situation that you want to say no to, imagine yourself saying yes to the things that matter to you instead. This kind of reframing can make even the most difficult "no" feel like a no-brainer.

2️⃣ Set boundaries.

Now that you know what you are protecting, decide how you will protect it. Grab a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of it. Two columns: a "yes" column and a "no" column. Don't even think about putting a "maybe" column in the middle! That's how you get into those messy situations that you dread!

Now right down the things you are willing to say "yes" to and the things you need to say "no" to in the appropriate column. Think of things that come up all of the time at school: an extra team meeting, covering a duty, that kind of stuff. Treat this sheet as a living document that you will continue to add examples to over time (in other words, don't lose it!)

What you're trying to do is get binary about the loose ends that fall into your life. By doing this kind of black-and-white sorting up-front, saying "no" when something doesn't align with your health or values will become automatic. Sure, there will be times where a new, tricky set of circumstances might make your decision-making a little difficult, but that's where you compare the situation to those you've already listed and do a little comparing and contrasting to figure out where you stand. Pro tip: just drop a "can I get back to you on that" when you need a minute to reflect. Don't sit on it or put it off: compare, contrast, and make a decision.

Respecting the boundaries you set for yourself can be difficult, especially if you start worrying about things like "how will I come off here" or "am I being a team player?" That's why having a system in place that you can refer to is so powerful: it helps externalize the process and creates some space between you and your final decision.

3️⃣ Get comfortable with "no".

If you never say it, "no" can be uncomfortable. If that sounds familiar, you might have an unhealthy "yes" habit.

The only way to get over it is by practicing saying "no" as often as you can. Look for 2-3 daily opportunities to practice saying "no" (even if you don't really have to). This will help you grow your confidence and get those "no's" flowing so that you don't shy away from dropping one when the situation calls for it.

4️⃣ Become a fearless self-advocate.

Oftentimes, people ask you if you can do them a favour or take on extra work because they have no idea how much you've already got on your plate.

Many teachers don't talk about what they are working on in their teaching. Mostly because - you know - they've got their head down and they are busting their butts trying to be great teachers!

By communicating your projects, goals, and mission with others, it will be easier for them to understand when you say "no" to things that may slow you down.

5️⃣ Become a "no" pro.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

You need to ask someone a favour. You go to see them, lay out your idea, and deliver the ask. They are INSANELY enthusiastic about your idea and go on about how this is something you NEED to see through. They give you a name of someone they think would be PERFECT for your project and send you on your way. You leave their office, feeling proud of your idea, and excited to take the next step towards turning it into a reality.

Then it hits you: they turned you down.

BOOM! You just go "No Pro'ed"!

A "No" Pro is a person who is exceptional at saying no in a way that does not make you realize they've said no to you.

Here are three "No" Pro tactics you can start playing around with:

  • ❤️ Use Kindness: "Thank you so much for thinking of me! I truly appreciate it but I can't take that on right now."
  • 💡 Present Alternatives: "I can't do that specifically, but I could help with..."
  • 🗓 Defer It: "Right now is not the best time, could we try in a month?"

Saying "no" doesn't have to feel like you just punched a person in the face. Let them down easy by growing your "No" Pro skills over time. PRO TIP: Next time you get "No" Pro'ed, write down how they pulled it off and add that move to your repertoire!

6️⃣ Find a "no" buddy.

Coming to the realization that you have contributed to creating the conditions you claim you don't want in your life is a tough pill to swallow. Even harder is realizing that the only person that can bring on the positive change that you need is yourself.

But the hardest thing is getting started.

If you're trying to get better at saying "no", let a friend or colleague that you trust know that this is an area in which you are trying to grow. An accountability partner can go a long way in helping you stay committed to the boundaries that you set for your well-being, especially if you share your "why" they boundaries list that you created in the previous steps.

If possible, find someone you trust at school as they will be alongside you in the trenches when a "no" situation comes up. It always easiest to do the hard thing when you've got that kind of support right beside you in those moments.

7️⃣ Let go of your "no"

If you're going to get good at saying "no", you need to learn to let go.

Don't dwell, make assumptions, or entertain conversations in your head. Although those kinds of mental battles aren't grounded in reality, they can take up just as much energy as though they were.

Instead, be proud that you are for protecting what's important to you by saying "no" to the things that are not. Life can only be lived in a forward direction, so say "no", let go, and keep moving.

8️⃣ Give yourself grace.

If you're still reading, chances are "no" is a struggle for you and maybe that led to a bad situation recently in your career.

There have been moments in which I let myself down by saying "yes" when I should have said "no". In those moments, it can be easy to beat yourself up about it and start ruminating on negative thoughts.

Failure is part of growth. Treat yourself with the same compassion you would show others and allow yourself to get back on your feet. Each opportunity to say "no" is a rep and get stronger with each rep you put it. So save that energy you would've used on self-loathing and put it towards finding the strength to saying "no", respecting your boundaries, and caring for yourself next time.

Many of us had to learn the hard way that saying "yes" to everything isn't healthy. Remember that you can't pour from an empty cup: to best serve your students, you need to take care of yourself first.

So remember, the fastest way to spell "self-care" is with just two letters:


If you enjoyed this blog post, feel free to share it with a colleague! You can also subscribe to my newsletter to make sure that you don’t miss out on any future posts that I share.

Thanks so much for reading and happy teaching!

Joey Feith
Joey Feith is a physical education teacher based out of Nova Scotia and the founder of ThePhysicalEducator.com.
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