In this One Thing You Might Try…blog post, Sarah Scheldt considers the push and pull between saying yes and saying no, as she explores the art of boundary setting alongside her second graders.
The word “no,” albeit small, can be both powerful and terrifying to use all at the same time. It’s a word that can bring on a range of feelings from empowerment to rejection, guilt, or even disappointment.
Recently, August, a student in my second-grade class, asked me if he could bring a stuffed animal to class as a learning partner. My knee jerk reaction was to give a resounding “no.” I could just picture stuffed animals dancing across the tables or being flipped up in the air while I was trying to teach. But, instead of answering right away, I asked him why bringing his stuffed animals was important to him and how this could work and be supportive for everyone in our classroom community.
August told me how having his stuffy helped him feel calm, especially when taking our Friday assessments. After listening to all that he had to say, August helped lead a whole-class conversation around his idea. As a class, we discussed boundaries and community agreements to which we could all commit. By having a conversation where all voices could be heard, I was able to eliminate a power dynamic that is sometimes created in teacher-student relationships. I am happy to say that Fridays with Friends has gone well so far.
As teachers, the constant delegating, assigning, fielding of questions, and feeling like we’re being pulled in all directions, makes saying “no” to our students' requests (especially when they seem outlandish, but even when they are merely inconvenient) easy to do.
And yet, when we’re experiencing our own overwhelm, stress, and exhaustion, we still find ourselves saying “yes” far too often to the requests of our supervisors, peers, or class parents. Many teachers might consider themselves in the category of “pleasers” or “over achievers.” We often go above and beyond to help our students, colleagues, and school community succeed, even if that is to the detriment of our own health and sanity.
Some of us might even develop the belief that if we say “no” we are putting the burden onto someone else. We may feel guilty or worry that we are not being a team player.
So, how can we set boundaries?
How can we say “yes” more often to the things that empower us, and “no” to those things that do not add value to our lives or the lives of our students? And how can we do all of this without feeling guilty or that we are letting others down?
Make decisions based on what you value most.
In my classroom, I strive to create an environment that is inclusive, safe, and focuses on social-emotional and physical health. Keeping these values at the forefront of my decision making has allowed me to say “no” to those things that do not serve me or my students, and “yes” to those items that create a positive learning environment.
Create “I statements” according to your values both inside and outside of the classroom.
- I value inclusivity, therefore I only pass out party invitations when there is one for every student.
- I value diversity, therefore I will have a library that contains books that represent the lives of my students and other people in the world.
- I value my personal family time, therefore I only check emails during work hours.
- I value my own mental health, therefore I disconnect from work during weekends and when I am on vacation.
- I value myself as a person, therefore I take my sick days when I need them.
Prioritize your time.
What we spend our time on each day is also a reflection of what we value most as educators. Think about what your non-negotiables are. For me, I know that my students get so much from our daily chapter book read-alouds. This time in our day not only allows my students to gain much needed comprehension and fluency skills, but it gives us time, as a class, to enjoy great stories that make us laugh, wonder, discover, question, and connect with the characters, each other, and ourselves, in such an inspiring way. There’s no better time in our day than to pull up a chair and hear what happens next. No matter what is going on in our day, we do not skip read-aloud time. (I think there would be mutiny if I tried!)
Twenty years ago, during my first year as a teacher, I was given some advice that I still live by today. One of my mentors, Cathy Cook, said, “You'll NEVER get it all done. The moment you think you’re ahead, you will find something else you could do.” So do the things that are most meaningful and leave the other stuff you don’t get done for the next day.
Educators make thousands of decisions every day, and saying no can be hard, but with practice, it does get easier. Honor and empower yourself by finding the right balance that works best for you and your students.
- Set a timer or a time of day when you STOP working. I love using a visual timer in my classroom so that my students know how much time they have to focus on their work. Because we have established this routine, they know they will get to return to their projects the next day.
- Shave off the “extras” that do not add to the overall big picture of your students’ learning. Think about the return on investment of your time. Is what you’re doing contributing to the bigger picture? You do not need to spend a lot of time creating and recreating charts or slides just to make them cute. Just like our students do not need to obsess over their own work, striving for absolute perfection, we can show our students that creating in the moment, even with imperfections, is okay too.
- Chunk your time. Focusing on one task at a time, or one part of your day can be helpful for both children and adults. Breaking up the day into manageable chunks and displaying it in a schedule can keep everyone on track and help avoid more questions about what is coming up next.
Reframe your “nos” into “yeses.”
When we say “no” we are actually opening ourselves up to say “yes” to something that could be more meaningful, leading us to feel happier, and be more well-rounded, productive teachers.
Saying, “no” to staying after 4:00 in the afternoon might mean saying, “yes” to your favorite fitness class, cooking dinner, or doing something else you enjoy. Finding enjoyment outside of the classroom can allow you to have more energy when you are teaching.
Sticking to your boundaries and deciding when to say yes and when to say no takes time and practice before it becomes a habit. But once you get the hang of it, you will find yourself more fulfilled and doing the things that really matter and bring you joy.
By practicing the “art of boundaries” with my students around our Fridays with Friends, I have learned a few things along the way. I can teach my students how to have meaningful conversations by listening to one another. I can teach them to hold one another accountable to the commitments they have made to themselves and each other and I can foster a community of joy and comfort for everyone.
About the author
Sarah Scheldt is a dedicated educator with over twenty years of experience. She has her M.Ed. in Literacy and is also a Certified Language Practitioner. Sarah is currently a second-grade inclusion teacher in Oxford, MS. Sarah also works as a mindset coach for busy moms, and tutors children in both reading and writing. You can connect with her at www.sarahscheldt.com or on Instagram @Sarah_Scheldt.
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