It’s okay to say “no” to what, exactly?

Anyone who has been an NQT/ECT in the past knows that the new kids on the block often get lumbered with excessive amounts of extra work that other teachers are not that keen to do. Sometimes this is sanctioned by mentors and/or school leadership, and other times it might be a case of the old guard taking advantage of the keen, fresh-faced new staff members who are keen and eager to please. It may even be somewhere in between.

When you are an ECT, it is sometimes quite difficult to find the courage or fortitude to simply say “no” to your new colleagues. After all, you don’t want to make a bad impression, do you? You don’t want them to think that you’re not a team player, right? To some extent, there is merit in this way of thinking. It is a good idea to accept certain additional work or responsibilities either as:

a) A way to learn more on the job by experiencing more roles and duties that are in your main remit

b) A way to impress on your mentor, school leaders and fellow teachers that you are a diligent educator and an asset to this team

On the other hand, there are times when it will get too much. Young as ECTs often are, they still need rest, recuperation and recreation. If you are an ECT, you also have your own students and department business to focus on. Therefore, it’s essential for survival during the ECT years that you learn to say “no” where appropriate.

What is the appropriate time to say no?

Striking a balance is essential. Here are a few scenarios that should help guide you in knowing when best to (politely) turn down certain requests.

1. When you know for a fact that your schedule is full for the day/week

You know better than anyone when your schedule is full and that you don’t reasonably have extra time for other non-essential things. In this case, you should feel safe and emboldened to (politely) refuse further requests from others.

2. When the requests are coming thick and fast from outside your department

You were hired to be part of the team but also to be an integral part of your department too. In your first year, the department’s work should be your priority as you establish yourself and find your place within that group. When you are receiving a high volume of non-department-related work, then it may also be time to say no.

3. When you are unsure of what the work really entails or how big the responsibility really is

Unless you have a clear picture of exactly what is required, how much time it will take up and how important it is, then it’s better to stay on the side of caution. It can be an additional (and often unnecessary) stressful burden to take on work when you haven’t thought it through.

What if it feels there really is no way to say “no”?

For many, the idea of saying no to vastly more experienced and sometimes senior colleagues is frightening. You need to keep a proper balance of work, and the need to also make a good impression make for a tough equilibrium to generate. There’s an even bigger picture to consider that should hopefully assuage the remainder of your doubt about this advice.

The “big picture” behind being able to say ‘No.’

First of all, you should consider the fact that saying “no” to one task means you can say “yes” to others. When you are working as an ECT, there’s so much you have to do. If you have taken on too much unnecessary and cumbersome duties, then your ability to accept more valuable tasks will be impaired. In other words, we should learn to say “no” so that, ultimately, we can say “yes.”

Secondly, the long-term result of becoming overburdened is premature burnout and major frustration and disillusionment. When you are as busy as you are going to be in your teaching career, it’s important to maintain the balance. Only despair awaits you in the other direction.

Finally, similar to what we said in a previous article regarding asking questions as an ECT, the ability to say “no” when it’s right to demonstrate tremendous gumption and professional clarity. You know what you need to get done, and you’re able to maintain strong performance by prioritizing what you need to prioritize and setting other tasks aside. Your mentor and school leadership will certainly be impressed over time by having such a team member.

In the end, “no” is a small but powerful word that will help you get through your ECT years successfully. By the end, you’ll be saying “yes” to your choice of going into the noble profession of teaching.